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A Maxim a Day Keeps Bad Feelings Away

Proverbial sayings such as “we’re all human” reduce feelings of regret and hypocrisy after men get into trouble. But new research finds they don’t have the same soothing effect on women.
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Hey, nobody’s perfect, right? After all, you live and learn. Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s well known that experience is the best teacher.

String them together, and these familiar proverbs start to sound suspiciously like rationalizations for questionable behavior. They reinforce our threatened egos by insisting the offense we just committed, or mistake we just made, wasn’t really so terrible after all.

And according to new research, they work — for men. It appears women’s consciences aren’t so easily assuaged.

Those are the findings of a study by psychologist Dan Stalder of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, just published in the journal Current Research in Social Psychology. He reports that, for males only, such adages reduce the uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance that arise when our behavior conflicts with our value system or positive self-image.

In Stalder’s experiment, 129 undergraduates read one of three stories describing episodes of flawed judgment. In the narratives, the central character — referred to as “you,” to increase the students’ identification with him or her — engages in unsafe sex, wastes water during a drought or passively goes along with friends as they hot-wire and steal a car.

After reading the story, most of the students read a short series of proverbs (the one-quarter that did not served as a control group). For some, the proverbs were direct forms of rationalization (“Everybody makes mistakes”); for others, they were indirect comments on the experience (“Live and learn”). For the remainder, the proverbs were irrelevant to the story at hand (“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”).

Finally, the participants were asked how regretful, hypocritical and stupid they would feel if they found themselves in the situation described in the story. They were also asked to rate the seriousness of the consequences of such behavior.

Stalder reports that, for the men, “reading relevant proverbs decreased feelings of dissonance compared to the control condition.” In other words, those exposed to the reassuring maxims were less likely to feel regret, or brand themselves an idiot or a hypocrite. But this ego-bolstering effect was not found in the women.

Why the difference? Stalder points to earlier research suggesting that, in matters of morality, men are more likely to be swayed by peer influence. He also noted that women tended to rate the behavior in the stories as more serious than the men, which may have “reduced the impact of a proverb-induced impression that everybody behaves immorally at times,” he writes.

His findings suggest young men and young women might benefit from different forms of counseling following episodes of anti-social behavior. If delinquent boys are basing their actions on a peer-based morality, it follows that it is important to address the ethics of their entire group.

Stalder concludes that these timeless proverbs “might have developed as an ego-protective coping mechanism.” To put it more bluntly, they’re a means for men to avoid facing their flaws. Using maxims to justify our actions may not be particularly mature behavior. But hey, we’re not saints!