We live with many double standards. Some of them we tolerate, and many we endorse without thinking of them as problematic. A double standard is a set of differential rules or principles applied to or expected from the same or similar people or situations. It typically reflects in dual interpretations of the same behavior or characteristic by different individuals who, in theory, are thought to be equal.
For example, the gender roles and sexual prerogatives of men and women often show double standards: if a man cries, he is commonly seen as weak or pathetic, denoting a negative connotation; but if a woman cries, she is thought to be sensitive, perhaps innocent, and femininely vulnerable, denoting a compassionate connotation. A man going out to bars and picking up different women to have sex with on multiple occasions, might be considered (by some) “macho,” a “stud,” or a “ladies’ man”—generally viewed in positive terms in the larger culture and extolled in movies and pulp fiction. But a woman who has sex with multiple partners in the same way as the male example typically would be labeled promiscuous or a “slut,” both being pejorative.
Double standards, however, may be understood more broadly. They are not only different standards or behavioral interpretations applied to different categories of people—they can be different (even opposite) behaviors exhibited by the same person under varying circumstances. The branch of behavioral science that deals with learning theory describes this phenomenon as discriminative learning: the conditioning process by which a subject learns to respond one way in the presence of a recognized stimulus, but fails to respond, or responds another way in the presence of a different stimulus.
The discriminative learning process shapes all people, and it helps us to survive and adapt. For instance, stopping at red lights and accelerating at green lights is normal and expected driving behavior. It’s also a fundamental demonstration of discriminative learning. You may walk around your house partially dressed or in a bathrobe, but you wouldn’t appear that way at the office. Just as these are examples of discriminative learning, there are many behaviors that an individual may exhibit toward different people offering the same stimulus. People automatically “discriminate” between different demand characteristics, depending upon who or what situation or condition exposes the stimulus and evokes a response.
Thus, a child may respect and obey one parent more than another. Such behavior is common, often strikingly disparate, and usually quite frustrating to the parent at the receiving end of less respectful or obedient behavior. The person less respected is typically the Mom or female figure in authority.
Women, of course, have struggled for centuries to gain respect and equality. Few in our society remain unaware of or impervious to the controversies surrounding women’s struggles for acceptance, respect, and equality. How does the disrespect of a child toward his or her parent (more often the mother) fit into the age-old pattern of women being relegated to subservience, disrespect, and violation? When the child repeatedly sasses, negates, and disobeys his Mom, does that mirror behaviors modeled within the family (and culture), or is that more a cause of future behaviors generalized to social style and perpetuating the disrespect foisted upon women?
Some would argue that discourteous regard or insolence toward women is attributable to ingrained cultural factors prevalent in historically male-dominant, physically strength-dependent, and/or male economically prioritizing cultures. Others would emphasize that the socialization of young males is the main determinant of how men treat women and, consequently, what the next generation models. Early influences, social modeling, and the effects of conditioning and consequences all play roles in the degree of respect with which men treat women. So does the self-regard and security an individual has of and in himself. A fragile ego and poor self-image make it tempting to put down others and to draw attention to oneself by feigning superiority.
The effects of social modeling are forceful. We observe and copy others as a means of learning actions, representations, and even beliefs that enable us to fit in and get by. We identify with those we see as effective and powerful, and we try out their behaviors, some more consciously than others. We discriminate what and whom we copy, and we observe what seems to work for us. This modeling integrates with our individual neurological and genetic predispositions and degrees of self-control, as well as conditioning by the environment and the consequences resulting from specific behaviors. Thus, habits and attitudes form about what the world is like and what to expect from others.
We learn what we can get away with and under what circumstances. We collect information and form hypotheses and conclusions about who will reward and favor us and what behaviors are likely to gain us attention and recognition. We differentiate, observe, and adopt many double standards. We employ discriminative learning by combining individual patterns of experience along with social rules and expectations.
These patterns play out routinely in families, as children develop and discover how to create and use basic manipulative tactics and strategies such as playing one parent off against the other and testing limits in order to get what they desire. Bad habits and maladaptive learning occur in conjunction with faulty impulse control and a variety of negative responses toward authority and the frustration of impeded drives and desires. Parents bring their complaints to my office as family dysfunction mounts, rebellion arises, and resentment, acting out, defiance, and/or withdrawal mutate within the family.
We draw upon our own experiences growing up to make sense of people’s actions and tendencies. These conclusions and beliefs are also shaped by popular “expert” theories about why we act the way we do. Thus, people typically justify their persistent bad habits, insecurities, frustrations, and marginal coping skills by citing the negative and pervasive influences of their parents and family dysfunction when they were young. Despite elements of truth to the effects of early programming, this carryover is too often used as a rationalization and foreclosure against making more functional choices that break the bondage of prior negative experiences and allow for more flexible and adaptive behaviors to emerge and strengthen.
Frequently, mothers come for my counsel and relief with these double standards in tow. They are conflicted, resentful, angry, and confused.
“He doesn’t defy his father the way he does me,” goes the lament. “Oh, sure, he shows some attitude toward his father, but he wouldn’t dare talk to him the way he does to me. He’s afraid of his father because he knows that Dad wouldn’t tolerate his nonsense.”
So why, then, does he run this racket upon Mom? Discriminative learning and double standards are instrumental in maintaining the negative and disrespectful behaviors. Mom allows (and actually unwittingly encourages) it, not because she wants to, but because of several factors that perpetuate the pattern:
It’s a scenario that has repeated thousands of times in my clinical practice: a mother confides her frustration and lament about her child (or children’s) disrespect. The litany is typical:
In addressing these issues, I begin by discussing with parents their views on why their child behaves this way. Many insightful parents (especially mothers) tell me that the child copies the behaviors he sees at home that are acted out between the parents.
“Johnny sees my husband talk down to me, tell me I’m wrong, and disrespect me; so he treats me that way, too.”
There is likely to be truth in this observation. However, I probe further:
“Might there be any other reasons that account for or explain why Johnny disrespects you?”
Sometimes the parent will come up with other explanations, even the basic causes at which I’m hinting—namely, that Johnny has learned (discriminatively) that he can push Mom’s buttons and get away with it (whereas the dynamic with Dad may be quite different).
The idea that people are conditioned by environmental consequences and will get away with what they/we can is one that most people can acknowledge in the abstract; but it’s harder for most people to see that template fitting the specific patterns of conflict and disrespect that occur in their own familial relationships.
I use the example of parking. Speaking in the first person, I relate that my habits of parking my car are highly influenced by wanting to avoid tickets. I disclose that I would park my car wherever I want (even against the parking regulations), were it not for the cost of paying the fines for potential tickets. Though I’m not proud of this scofflaw tendency (and can mock myself for having self-important entitlements and justifications for parking illegally), I recognize that the laws keep me in line. The sting of past costly infractions and the threat of potential future ones condition my parking behavior (and, thankfully, the behavior of others who might block my car or driveway). Most adults can relate to this experience.
I then make the comparison between the cost of parking tickets and the cost that should be imposed to deter unwanted behavior, such as disrespect and disobedience. Of course, we want mostly to reward and reinforce good behavior; but that process alone is often not enough to squelch undesirable behaviors. The cost of infractions must be predictable, timely, consistent, and high enough to have the desired effect. When combined with the reinforcement of proper behaviors (and those specifically incompatible with the faulty ones), this approach works effectively by letting predictable and consistent consequences shape enduring learning.
Interestingly, most children, when asked in a nonthreatening manner about their disrespectful or inappropriate behavior, will easily admit that it’s wrong. When queried, they will often verbalize or acknowledge the hurtful or damaging impact upon others. However, we observe the pervasive disconnect between knowing the difference between right and wrong and practicing faithful compliance with that principle. Parking one’s selfish or disrespectful behavior where it doesn’t belong is a lot like parking one’s car illegally. Yes, I shouldn’t do it, but…(as long as I don’t get caught or ticketed, there are extenuating circumstances).
Sometimes, the child will deny the impact of his behavior, or pretend that his actions are not harmful, despite the parent’s explanations of hurt feelings and previous efforts at training in values, including the consideration of others. This makes things more complicated, and it may hark back to character flaws or societal beliefs (such as those that reinforce racism and sexism). It seems to be part of some people’s nature to minimize or even dismiss the negative impact of disrespect upon those disrespected—as if the recipient either deserved such treatment or was overreacting to behavior that was not really harmful. I have talked with many antisocial individuals (even children) who dismiss or justify taunting or physically assaultive behavior with the rationalization that “it didn’t really hurt her, or “what does she expect when she treats me that way?”.
Suffice it to say that the first step in addressing disrespectful behavior is to cite the personal impact from the violation, question the appraisal of it from the child, and highlight the discrepancy between the value system and its violation in practice. We have heard and try to honor the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.
Keep in mind, however, another rule that governs many people’s behavior. I call it “Steinberg’s Dross Rule of Selfish Psychological Reversal”:
After they put themselves and their interests first, people may consider the needs and feelings of others.
Bear in mind that people are imperfect. We are all selfish, and children are notably more self-centered. The processes of growing up and becoming socialized gradually chip away at the solipsism that characterizes human nature. But do not be surprised at the insensitivity and self-centeredness that abounds, even within your own family. Start to address disrespect by highlighting its impact upon you; then, question, in a nonthreatening way (and without showing anger or a victim attitude) whether the perpetrator intended to hurt you.
It might go something like this:
“When you called me fat and mean, I felt very hurt. Perhaps I took it the wrong way or overreacted inside. Did you really mean to hurt me?”
If the child says no or that he’s sorry, then you can follow with:
“I appreciate that. We all do things sometimes without fully considering their consequences. I do forgive you. I also think you should become more aware of your habit of lashing out, even if you regret it afterward. I want to point out that being sorry is good, but it does not usually stop the behavior from happening again. Perhaps you could make a note of that and think about what else you could do to keep from disrespecting me in the future.”
With this interaction, you are averting further conflict, building a platform for civil and sensitive communication with your child, and directing his attention and reasoning to the reality that apology is necessary, but not sufficient, to change the bad habit. You’re planting the seeds for strategic behavior modification.
If the child remains defiant or reiterates his rancor, do not take the bait and become defensive or authoritarian. (This will reinforce his angry behavior, as he sees how his “hooks” can control your emotions.) Rather, respond like this:
“It’s too bad that you let you feelings take over when something annoys you or you don’t get what you want. I’ll get over the way you acted and I know that being angry and trying to hurt me is your way of dealing with not getting your way. But it’s a behavior and an attitude that will have negative consequences for you, and that is how you will learn to change. I love you, but I dislike your behavior. I would like being with you more and would do more things for you if you acted nicer.”
In sum, words are not going to change disrespectful behavior. But understanding, acknowledging, and discussing the motivations and ramifications of disrespect are the foundations for modifying your own reactions and setting boundaries and consequences to limit and deter offensive and disrespectful perpetrations.
You can think of disrespect as a glowing fire: it starts with a spark that ignites underlying tension and resentment, and then erupts into aggression that’s acted out, accelerates, and provokes or incites a reaction that further elicits and justifies more of the same. Disrespect is not only offensive to the person on the receiving end—it becomes incendiary, consuming, and toxic on a more encompassing scale. By its nature, it leads to turmoil and irrationality. The fuels that sustain disrespect are the negative emotions that drive the both perpetrator and the recipient.
Two things happen when a disrespectful encounter occurs, and they are usually reflexive and subconscious. The perpetrator’s disrespectful act is an expression of contempt, impudence, or inconsideration, sponsored and accompanied by his negative emotions. These may be actively experienced as the need to express displeasure, frustration, or blame, or as the aggressively hostile posture of putting down another person to boost one’s ego or to preserve one’s own image and emotional vulnerability. Both of these motives (largely beneath the perpetrator’s awareness) serve as defense and coping mechanisms for feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.
The recipient of disrespect is often provoked by the threatening and derogatory words or actions. This invokes a chain reaction of perceived threat and vulnerability, heightened fight-or-flight nervous system activity, and responses that may include fear, anxiety, aggressive defense, and overreaction (especially internally). There can be a protective reaction of the need to “get back” at the offender or the “licking wounds” response to an attack.
As those familiar with disrespectful relationships know, these interactions tend to cycle and escalate, typically building resentment, hostility, and mistrust. Beliefs and justifications abound to somehow make sense of the uncaring advances.
The important point to remember is that the negative emotions (both overt and covert) drive and sustain the disrespect. Reasons and justifications may be proffered as causes or rationales for disrespecting women, but they are actually the effects and aftermath of disrespectful actions. In other words, the negative emotions cause disrespectful behavior; the rationales and beliefs that “explain” the disrespect come after the fact, as if to hide or overshadow the real source of the disrespect: negative emotions acted out.
This may seem like a radical conceptual view, but it is very relevant and practical. When a child violates his parents’ rules or orders, the natural reaction is shock, parental distress, upset, and the determination to not let him get away with it. Certainly, consistent and appropriate consequences to deter such behavior are in order. However, these are harder to implement effectively when one is derailed by the negative emotions elicited by the offense.
Conversely, it’s important to observe and understand that people who habitually disrespect others are often reacting to an internal loss of control that they express through outward eruptions. Afterward (and in response to being held accountable), they may justify their behavior and attitudes, much to the added consternation of the one being disrespected. But the real culprit sustaining this vexing habit is the underlying brain patterns and physiological responses to negative emotions.
Thus, deterrence of disrespectful patterns really does respond to and depend upon the capacity of both parties to deal more effectively with the negative emotions that underlie both the offense and the defense inherent in these interactions.
Training the brain and nervous system to be self-regulated and more adaptive in the face of provocations and frustrations will go a long way to help disrespectful individuals changed their locked-in rigidity. This has been shown over many decades with many thousands of individuals. The specific technique is called EEG biofeedback (or EEG neurofeedback). It is practiced by many professionals, and is well researched and documented (including by my own books, ADD: The 20-Hour Solution and Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times).
So many people of all ages have been calmed and “sweetened” by this natural technique that uses brain plasticity to build more flexible and functional repertoires of response. It’s delightful—and predictable—how a brief regimen of brain training with computers can enable people to dismiss their anger, aggression, and, yes, even beliefs, about what that other person deserves!
Another valuable and very effective intervention to eliminate the negative emotions that drive disrespect and sustain dysfunctional responses is the technique of Thought Field Therapy (TFT). TFT has a very high success rate in rapidly eliminating any negative emotion. Many professionals use this technique, and it can also be effectively self-administered in just a few minutes. I use this method routinely, and I also teach it to patients and professionals. (For more information, see my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times).
In working with parents (especially mothers) whose children and other family members disrespect them, I advocate and implement the use of TFT (I practice the advanced and thoroughly precise version known as Voice Technology) to rapidly and completely eliminate the negative emotions resulting from being disrespected. This frees my patients from continuing to dwell upon the wrongs and injustices foisted upon them by those who disrespect them.
The elimination of the recipient’s distress is no excuse for the disrespect to continue or to be tolerated without responses to curtail it. Inappropriate behavior should not be rewarded or justified. However, freedom from having to react negatively or to “lick one’s wounds” goes a long way toward strategically implementing steps to modify and curtail the disrespectful behavior.
Discriminative learning and its place in maintaining double standards have been outlined above. Learning theory and behavior modification are the provinces of changing behaviors by means of reinforcement schedules and consequences. This method of learning and behavior control is called operant conditioning. In the example of parking behaviors described above, I cited the deterring effect of costly tickets upon my inclination to park where it’s convenient for me to do so.
We all learn by these methods of control, and we all use them to shape our behaviors and, to the extent we can, the behaviors of others. The existence and use of these methods is neither deterministic nor mechanistic or robotic. There’s lots of room for free will; indeed, I would argue that more rational behavior control (including self-control) makes possible more freedom of choice and, in turn, wider opportunities to influence outcomes.
There are dynamic and subconscious drives that propel behavior (including the conditioned responses observed and modeled from childhood). There are strong genetic influences upon characteristic behaviors. And there are biochemical physiological patterns that lower the thresholds for transgressive behaviors that overstep boundaries, often resulting in disrespectful offenses. But the bottom line is that dealing with and constructively changing such behaviors must include a strategic and consistently implemented plan to let natural consequences reform the errant behaviors.
If I park my car in your driveway, I risk getting it towed. That consequence (or the fear of it) will probably teach me the right behavior and inhibitions far more than your anger.
Behavior modification techniques are widely taught, and there are many books and how-to programs available. (Again, see my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times).
To respond more sanely and effectively when someone disrespects you personally, it’s wise to:
It can be reasonably argued that the larger cultural norms and traditions foster the disrespecting of women. Many societies relegate women to inferior status. While some people take umbrage at the blatant discrimination and mistreatment of women in cultures different from ours, others highlight the subtle though pervasive attitudes and practices that reinforce the subjugation of women and maintain the status quo of double standards allowing women to be routinely disrespected.
I would argue that the same forces (outlined above) that permit and encourage disrespecting women in the microcosm of families are writ large in our culture and in more repressive societies. Namely:
It’s encouraging that women collectively are asserting more of a voice in overturning the tolerance for disrespect toward them in our society. Sexual harassment is no longer to be tolerated—both men and women are learning the “new normal” of respect and boundaries. Yet we have a very long way to go. Though rape unfortunately continues, there is increasing support for women to eliminate the shame and guilt they may experience from this violent disrespect. (It’s a stretch, but I ask you to compare this guilt and shame to the disrespected Mom who says, “It’s my own fault for letting him get away with it.” No, it’s not your fault. It’s a disgraceful overstepping of boundaries in a neurological and environmental context that allow it to happen—and it must be changed and stopped.)
Rape and sexual assault and harassment may be penultimate forms of disrespect, predominantly against women. However, there is a larger and subtler context than the legal definitions that constitute a violation. Yes—no means no—but yes should sometimes mean no, too. Confusing? Let me break that down for you:
I think our attitudes and actions toward one another are deficient in a code of conduct that says, “I should have known better.” Most of us are too quick to defend, justify, and exonerate ourselves and our actions. We take advantage, and then claim that it was consensual, assumed, or that everyone does it. Complicity and selfishness are poor shields, even when no specific laws have been broken.
If my actions—or thoughts or attitudes—demean or diminish someone, then the governing rule should be “I should have known better.”
Uh-oh—out the window go racism, sexism, egotism, sarcasm, and all forms of one-up-manship, that precious skill so carefully honed and practiced. Then, the space they vacate can be flooded with consideration, sensitivity, compassion, and empathy; these are the true deterrents to and antidotes for disrespect.
When I was growing up, there was a popular TV sitcom called The Honeymooners. It featured a pompous and bombastic Brooklyn bus driver named Ralph who constantly tried to puff up his ego and exaggerate his importance. His longsuffering and practical wife, Alice, counterbalanced Ralph’s condescending character. In one episode, Ralph rants about the important accomplishments achieved by men. He flourishes with, “Where do you think we’d be if it weren’t for Christopher Columbus?” To which Alice calmly retorts, “And where would Christopher Columbus be if it weren’t for his mother?”
Followers of the Seinfeld show may recall with levity a closing episode in which the friends were arrested for violating the “Good Samaritan Law.” In this episode, they witness a man getting carjacked. Rather than help him, they retreat and ridicule the hapless victim (which Kramer videotapes). Unbeknownst to them, the town they are in has a “Good Samaritan Law” which requires onlookers to come to the aid and assistance of people being violated. In this vignette, they are guilty by “failure to know and do better.”
This episode is riotous, partly because it pits the law against human nature in absurd parody. It also highlights the differences and similarities between compassionate and selfish responses. It is based, of course, on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.
We are unlikely to be prosecuted for consensual interest or disinterest. But in a better world, we should be governed by the rule of “I should have known better.”
Jesus Christ stands as a model of truth and perfection. It may seem antithetical to claim that he used double standards routinely. Remember, though, that double standards are based upon discriminatively learning different behaviors and outcomes according to different presuppositions, stimuli, and conditions.
The obvious double standard that Jesus taught was the difference between good and evil. There are rules, behaviors, and consequences for each paradigm and spiritual force. And, as you may know, they are not equal.
Another double standard that Jesus touted was the differential effects of wisdom versus foolishness. This, too, illustrates inequality. Clearly, the wise are better off than the foolish.
Jesus clearly reiterated the double standard that applies to believers in his deity versus nonbelievers. He proclaimed that there are different understandings, different behaviors, and different outcomes for believers and nonbelievers.
And the ultimate double standard? Of course, this is the standard of man versus the standard of God! They are not the same. We can only begin to wrap our minds and hearts around this double standard by practicing humility and respect.
Thus, a double standard is not just a rationalization for doing or getting what you want or for using others to express how you feel.
When asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40).
And so, Jesus resolved the double standard by teaching us what is necessary to practice equality and respect.