Have you ever wondered why women so often pretend to be stupid, especially in social situations, when there are men around?
JACKIE: I donít believe it! Why do I keep doing that? When am I going to learn that Iím qualified and grown up? I manage over three hundred workers for goodness sake, and then, in front of him, and all the others, I turn into a stupid little ninny - derrr!
It seems that Jackie doesnít know why. Presumably she does it for subconscious reasons. I am not trying to say that women are stupid, but I am referring to the oft-noticed trait that women have of pretending to be far more stupid than they really are. A common situation when this happens is at a dinner party. Normally, women chatter more than men, but at dinner parties, studies have shown that men dominate the conversation, and women who in other situations might speak a lot, instead say little. Also, it has been noticed that the subjects men talk about in such situations change. Whereas they might in the pub with their friends talk about beer, cars and football, around the table and in the company of women, they talk about politics, religion and much weightier and more philosophical topics.*It is my contention that women behave as they do in order to judge men. At the dinner party, a woman might start off a conversation by asking a stupid question. The question is really a challenge to the men to come up with the best answer. Our example woman Jackie might ask a question about personnel management in business, since she knows quite a bit about that. By getting the men to talk about something she knows about, she is in a better position to judge the quality of the answers the men give. Of course, this would only work as long as the men donít know what she knows.
JACKIE: So what I donít understand is why they would ever sack anyone. I mean why would they do that? Itís so cruel.
Jackie, by asking this stupid question, is inviting the men to a lek. A lek is a term used by biologists to refer to a display by many males in one place, from which females might choose a male to mate with. It is a behaviour used by many species of bird, generally those where the male is gaudy, and the females drab. The men around the table now each get invited or lured to participate. The partyís host (or, more likely, hostess) might make sure that everyone gets to speak. The more able male speakers might taunt the less able into speaking, so as to offer a contrast with their abilities. Each man then offers his answer to her stupid question, and will seek to impress her, and show her that he know more than she does. She will not break the spell by admitting to any knowledge. She wants to hear what all the men have to say under equal conditions, before judging them. She and the other women around the table will all get to hear all the men, and so the best thing that they can do is shut up and listen.
The women around the table do not benefit most by helping the stupid and arrogant men to come up with better answers. What the women want is to be able to make an accurate judgement of the men, to find out which is truly the most intelligent and able, and which is not.
The reason that women might have evolved this trait is simple enough. Women have to be very choosy about men. For them, the choice of mate is a massive investment, and it is of the highest importance that they pick the best men. This is true for long term partners such as husbands, but it is also true for short term partners, who give them high quality sperm. A woman will invest a great deal of her reproductive potential bringing up a child, so she will want the best children, and so will want the best sperm. At a dinner party lek, the women will learn which men are the best for having affairs with. Even if they themselves donít have affairs, they will be able to make recommendations to their allies and relatives, and will get warnings of which men might be the desired targets of their rivals and enemies. All information is good, so far as the women are concerned.
Because all information is good, the women will cruelly let the men dig themselves deeper and deeper, and will allow the men to ramble on giving the most appalling contributions to the conversation. All the while, the women may smile and even encourage this, giving away no clue as to their true opinions of the men in question.
All this is best achieved with a sub-conscious tactic. If the women have to try and suppress their true knowledge and true opinions consciously, then the effort of this might give the game away, or else their willpower might crumble, and they might launch into a loud criticism of the men and their stupid arrogant answers, and spoil the lek for everyone. Nature is wiser, and causes the women to act stupid and listen, despite their silent intelligence. After the dinner party, one woman, like Jackie, might get angry with herself for the daft way she behaved, but this anger does her little harm, and she has benefited from the knowledge she has gleaned about the men. She now knows that Darren is a stupid arrogant git, and she may be angry for letting him ramble on for so long, and she may hate herself for the fawning way she smiled at him all through this. Importantly, though, she now knows what he is really like underneath, and she will not have an affair with him. She might have an affair with Gareth, though. His answer was short and respectful:
GARETH: Iím surprised to hear you asking that, Jackie. All companies want to retain good staff, but if things go badly for a company, as sometimes they will, then difficult decisions have to be made. You know that.
It is her choice to reject Darren and consider Gareth that affects the genes of the next generation of humanity. That she was angry with herself for a day or two after a dinner party has no bearing on the future gene pool. The women of the past who acted stupid ended up as the best informed about the men in their area, and thus ended up picking the best men to mate with, and passed on the most genes, and women today are the descendants of these women.
One might say that it is very clever of women to be so stupid, but since they are acting stupid despite not knowing why, then I think that praise should be withheld. My advice to men on encountering a woman who is acting stupid is to beware rambling on before finding out more about her. If a manís mouth is open but ears and eyes closed, then he may well put his foot in it.
* See Dunbar, Robin 1996 Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571173977.
BACK TO EVOLUTION MENU
Written by Nikolas Lloyd