Arnold Kling  

My Sexism

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David points to an example in which Madeleine Albright is willing to see Iraqi children die, presumably because of American policy. That may be cruel, but it is not an example of the pathology that I was describing. What Angelo Mozilo or Roland Arnall would have done would have been to deny that their policies were causing any harm. They would have attempted to wall off reality altogether.

I do not say that women are perfect. However, I think that there are some men with a greater willingness/ability to create an alternate universe than I have ever observed or read about in a top woman executive. When such men get to the top of large organizations, the results sometimes can be remarkable (historians of Apple Computer have written of the "Steve Jobs reality distortion field") and sometimes catastrophic. In the case of finance, where the downside potential seems to me so much higher than in other fields (and where, contrary to what we might prefer, the downside risk is effectively socialized), I would prefer not to see "reality distortion fields" operating at high levels.

So far, although I have seen women who lack integrity or scruples of various sorts, I do not see the sort of "reality distortion fields" or spectacular overconfidence that I see in some male CEO's. The latter come to believe that everything good that happens to them reflects their skill, everything bad that happens reflects luck or conspiracies, their critics are liars, and their doubters can be dismissed as malcontents. Albright does not strike me as falling into that pathology.



COMMENTS (17 to date)
Tracy W writes:

Christine Rankin at Work and Income New Zealand (a government department). See one of many news stories. Very successful as a manager at non-CEO levels, then it went to her head when she reached the top.

During the uproar, one of the women high up in the public sector told me that she'd tried to advise Rankin several times before and after her problems, but was blown off.

Salem writes:

To an extent it's small sample size - there are many fewer women CEOs and politicians, so we see fewer women doing it in the public sphere. Our own private experiences are of course anecdotal.

My own view is that women are no better and no worse at this. I think Margaret Hodge and Sharon Shoesmith are classic examples of women displaying this pathology.

Colin K writes:

What about Carly Fiorina?

Hyena writes:

Yes, but Albright is a public figure who must face public criticism. Mozilo, et al, do not. In this cycle, both Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman are examples of women who were both at the head of enterprise and suffered from "reality distortion fields" there.

SB7 writes:

Arnold, if you're interested in being disabused of the notion that women are less likely to project Reality Distortion Fields then all you have to do is meet some of the women my friends have dated.

tom writes:

The Madeline Albright 'example' is wrong.

1. Albright wasn't the inventor of the policy. These were UN sanctions. They were decided by our President and leaders of many countries.

2. It is completely unknowable how many people the sanctions 'killed'. There are no bullet-ridden bodies to count; there are just comparisons of different death rates in a country where the statistics have to be viewed with suspicion.

3. The sanctions were an alternative to war. Some conservatives used them, and still do, as an argument that war was a better option. If you credit the 500k deaths number, you are crediting the idea that war may have been better.

4. Much of the effect of sanctions was controlled by Saddam Hussein, as were many of the baselines against which deaths were calculated. It's almost impossible to know what really happened and how much of it was his responsibility.

5. Albright said later that she had answered the question poorly in the interview and that she didn't accept that 500,000 number and had never believed it. I think that's much more likely to be true than that she really meant to say "I accept that I have killed 500k people but it's totally worth it."

People love the 'gotcha' moment so much that they don't deal with whether the number dead was true, or that Albright really believed it to be true.

I am willing to believe that woman are capable of will rationalizations. But this example is bad.

JPIrving writes:

I don't know what I think.

If you are correct, perhaps it has something to do with the different variance of personality characteristics between men and women. Lower variance in IQ, perhaps also lower variance in the characteristics which cause megalomania ?

In a normal life context I think I agree with SB7, women are selfobsessed, unstable and petty. (At least the good looking ones ;) ) Perhaps this is because they can get away with it...just like CEOs!

cm writes:

To get anecdotal evidence that you're wrong, sit in a divorce court for an entire day.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Arnold,
I see Arnold's distinction now and it's true that I hadn't dealt with that.
@tom,
We now know that the 500,000 estimate was way too high. It was probably known even then. That's not my point. Albright took that estimate as true and said it was a worthwhile price.

Mike Rulle writes:

With all respect, I would drop this topic all together. It is impressionistic and anecdotal to the extreme. Perhaps if studies of policy/psychology differences among historical women leaders were referenced, this would be more interesting (e.g., Thatcher, Gandhi, Meir ----there are more interesting figures in politics than business I think).

But such studies I believe were outlawed by MIT's Professor Hopkins in the Lawrence Summers kerfuffle. On it's face, however, your hypothesis seems strained at best.

Steve Sailer writes:

I think Arnold has a pretty good point. Ayn Rand would be a counterexample, but she's also closer to an exception that supports the tendency -- i.e., Rand's femaleness is somewhat conspicuously unusual among cult leaders.

Lewis writes:

I think that it's possible to explain some of this without resorting to particular traits of sexes, as long as you hold the following:
1) group think occurs more easily among single-gendered groups;
2) most executives are male;
3) people are optimistic about their own prospects.

You still have to answer why most executives are male. But once you get to that state of the world, it's very easy to see how men meet in groups, announce their own optimism, observe optimism from others in similar situations, and, most crucially, don't hear any dissent. Anyone in this situation will logically conclude things are even better than he thought. It doesn't take special masculine traits.

Joel West writes:

Is this correlation or causation? It is possible to have a causal theory, the well known theory of testosterone poisoning. (Is it genetic? Is it cultural? Who cares?)

Yes I agree Fiorina is a classic example of a female CEO that's as overconfident as a man, but there is little evidence that she generated any reality distortion whatsoever.

Working closely with various HP divisions at the time, not a single person was drinking the Kool-Aid® — quite unlike the Jobs I or Jobs II eras at Apple. Carly had undeniable power and authority. She was the boss: some people fought her, some tried to ignore her, and some exploited the new priorities and sought to use it as a way to climb the ladder.

If you want reality distortion, you need someone like Anita Broderick — who seems to be very similar to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. But then environmental (or cause) oriented companies seem very prone to the reality distortion/Kool-Aid syndrome — almost by definition, since the shared belief takes priority over actual performance.

Tom Ault writes:
So far, although I have seen women who lack integrity or scruples of various sorts, I do not see the sort of "reality distortion fields" or spectacular overconfidence that I see in some male CEO's. The latter come to believe that everything good that happens to them reflects their skill, everything bad that happens reflects luck or conspiracies, their critics are liars, and their doubters can be dismissed as malcontents. Albright does not strike me as falling into that pathology.

Arnold, I hate to break it to you, but the "reality distortion field" you describe in the italicized portion of the quote above is not a pathology unique to CEOs or politicians. Plenty of plain, ordinary people of all races and both genders go through their lives living in a heavy-duty reality distortion field, where nothing is ever their own fault, any criticism reflects a flaw in the person delivering it (just jealous, stupid, etc.) and the only reason they haven't made it to the top is that someone is keeping them down or they "just don't want to." It's not all that common, but it's not all that rare either. The only difference between them and folks like Angelo Mozillo is that they were neither talented or lucky enough to become a CEO, but the reality distortion field was there nonetheless.

pandaemoni writes:

The tendency to ascribe successes to personal skill and talent and failures to to the general unfairness of the world or conspiracies are traits that are common among people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as is a tendency to recast reality to fit their delusions of self-aggrandizement. Many people NPD are very functioning--they do have a lot of talent and skill to spare and to help feed into the fantasy of their own greatness. The sense of their own superiority often makes them strive to get into places of power and prestige (because, if not them, who else?). Also, interesting, most people diagnosed with NPD (though not all) are men.

Peter St. Onge writes:

I strongly disagree. My own stepmother, serial entrepreneur, most definitely displayed all the 'male CEO traits' you describe.

I think you've got an availability problem here. Fewer female CEO's means fewer weirdos. You could use similar logic to erroneously argue that, given no female Steve Jobs or Brin/Pages, women are not visionaries. It's a statistics thing.

Zubon writes:

Not to nitpick, but "reality distortion field" has an established definition that is not what you mean here. It refers to being incredibly charismatic and changing others' perceptions, not that said person has distorted perceptions and tries to push them on others. It is meant as an ability to convince and motivate, not delusion.

Just wanted to mention before trying to export this argument causes some unfortunate confusion with someone using the standard meaning.

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