too much concern about what other people think and feel is associated with fear of negative evaluations, which may be expressed through apprehension and distress over negative evaluations by others, the avoidance of evaluative social situations, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.
The austistic spectrum disorders are believed (by some, but not all) to be evidence of extreme male brain, perhaps because of hypersensitivity to androgens, for instance. There’s a lot to hate about that theory, not the least because it takes typical male traits as biological in origin and thus discounts the social construction of gender hypothesis. But say it’s true. If so, there might also be an Extreme Female Brain. What would someone in that situation look like?
Well, Bremser and Gallup are suggesting it would combine three factors: disordered eating, social anxiety… and vegetarianism:
suggested a novel explanation for why vegetarianism is particularly prevalent among people with eating disorders. Previously it’s been assumed that vegetarianism is popular for this group as a means of calorie restriction. However, if eating disorders are part of the manifestation of an Extreme Female Brain, one that’s associated with exaggerated empathy, then vegetarianism may be a natural consequence of having enhanced empathy for animals.
At this point there’s little effort to tie anything to a particular etiology, but the suggestion is that one can literally care too much. My primary interest in this is as a would-be vegetarian and as a fallibilist. How would we know if we are caring too much? How can we ever know if our moral intuitions have misled us? Does the mere fact of making a sacrifice of personal well-being for another indicate that our care is excessive? Should we then say that humanitarian aid workers are pathological, civil rights activists delusional and martyrs sick?
And what if “Extreme Female Brain” allows some to see clearly what others are blinded to? Certainly this is true for “Extreme Male Brain,” since autistic spectrum disorders do include many very intelligent people who can better analyze data or parse evidence than the supposedly-healthy men and women who are not on the spectrum. Why isn’t “extra care” a superpower? It’s associated with eating disorders, certainly, but only because of extraneous factors that cause a person with this hypothetical hypertrophied caring capacity to notice that what other people want from them is for them to be thin and beautiful! Their care is correctly reporting the desires of others!
At least for women. The study shows that men with eating disorders are actually incorrectly recognizing the emotions of others:
Among female participants, dysfunctional attitudes towards eating were associated with higher scores on an objective measure of empathising, one that involved interpreting emotions from pictures of people’s eyes. But for males, dysfunctional attitudes to eating actually predicted lower scores on the test.
The researchers surmised that perhaps these men were over-interpreting the pictures – “hyper-mentalising” – and seeing emotions that weren’t there, which would be consistent with their central thesis about the Extreme Female Brain. Supporting this, further studies found that dysfunctional attitudes towards eating and fear of negative evaluation by others also tended to go hand in hand with higher self-reported scores on schizotypy, including exaggerated suspiciousness, magical thinking and paranoia – arguably all signs of “hyper-mentalising”, and the opposite of what’s seen in autism.
Clearly this line of research has only just begun. We haven’t even established the causes and mechanisms of autism; there is every possibility that these speculations about the gendered brain are merely bad pattern matching. But it’s interesting to wonder about the big question: even presented with a pathological account of care, is it possible to believe that care for others could be in error? Lurking in the background for me here is Susan Wolf’s essay on Moral Saints, and anxieties about care ethics in general. What do you think?