Thought Experiment: Man Vs. Bear (2024)

By Lee Mitchell

Thought experiments are common in philosophy. They force us to think outside the box and consider the human condition from an analytic and reflective viewpoint. They are designed to spark thoughtful discussion, not provoke anger or offense. The “man v. bear” memes that have recently exploded across the internet have tested this theoretical construct.

The thought experiment, for anyone living under a rock, asks whether women would potentially feel safer if they came across a wild bear or a human male while alone in the wilderness. Many women needed a moment’s pause to compare and rationalize the potential threats. Others went as far as to claim they would feel safer with the bear, causing some men to retort with a disturbing measure of outrage.

Take this gem, which exemplifies the extreme responses from both sides:

Or this one, which attempts to minimalize and deflect the initial question:

Thought Experiment: Man Vs. Bear (2)

Many of those who find the question (and some women’s responses) offensive have felt the need to remind everyone how deadly bears can be—as though responders aren’t also aware of the fact that bears are seriously dangerous creatures. They seem to feel threatened by the idea that any woman, let alone a sea of them, might peg men in general as anything but knights in shining armor.

I think I can safely speak for most women when I say I would absolutely feel threatened if I came across a bear in the woods. I think I can speak for most women when I say I would also, without question, feel threatened if I came across a man I didn’t know in the woods. But the downright claims from some women that they would feel safer with the bear tell us just as much as the negative responses directed toward them. The trauma is as real as it is widespread.

The anger this meme has generated raises another question: Do some people simply have a problem processing abstract dilemmas? I conducted the "trolley problem" thought experiment on my social media page to show that offering people two unreasonable options does NOT typically cause the internet to explode. The question: A trolley is barreling out of control, and five people will crash to their deaths if it continues on its current path. You are in control over a switch, which will set the trolley on an alternate track and save the five passengers' lives. There's just one problem: A single person is trapped on the alternate track, and they will die if you activate the switch. Do you?

Unsurprisingly, no one lost their mind over it. Responses were thoughtful, with many people exploring the moral implications of their options. Others got creative. One person said they would find a way to contact the people in the trolley and ask for their input. Another stated that they would throw themselves in front of the tracks in the hopes of saving everyone else. No one responded with angry memes.

The very nature of the thought experiment is to force us to think outside the box and consider possibilities we normally wouldn't. There’s something distinct about the “man v. bear” question, and its most passionate responders have, in their reactions, offered some interesting insights. In short, a subset of men doesn’t believe women have the right to feel threatened by them—because accepting that ugly truth takes introspection and the willingness to accept the possibility that somewhere down the line, they too may have contributed to the problem.

And the problem is monumental. Women face gender-related violence all across the globe. The United Nations states that much of the issue stems from ideologies that foster men’s sense of entitlement and privilege over women, which includes social mores that define masculinity and celebrate male dominance. And men are unquestionably more likely than women to commit violent acts. Statistics the Federal Bureau of Investigations compiled in 2012 indicates that males are implicated in 88.7% of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter cases; they’re also involved in 77.1% of aggravated assaults. In the US alone, 26,031 people are murdered each year, and most of the perpetrators are men. Compare these numbers to the 146 fatal attacks documented since the 1700s in North America from black and brown bears combined.

Angry responders to the memes point out that the majority of human murder victims are also males—reasoning that women are statistically less likely than men to become homicide victims—but they fail to consider the added threat of sexual assault, which women are far more likely to experience at the hands of men. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women will be the victims of rape or attempted rape within their lifetime. The experience can leave lasting trauma—strong enough for some women to give pause when asked whether they’d take their chances with a man over a bear.

The fact that social media is currently fixated on two responses—women saying they’d feel safer with the bear and men getting defensive about it—is really all the data anyone needs.

About the author: Media writer by day, science fiction and horror creator by night, Lee Mitchell reaches out through their writing to generate new approaches to old questions about the human condition. They’re a zealot about life, with a knack for making friends with animals and a love of cats, corvids, and spiders. Their work reflects a dichotomy of darkness and hope, such as the world we live in, exploring good and evil through their love of the written word. Lee has battled many real monsters, although they’ve also been known to tackle a windmill here and there along the way. Their world view might seem a little crazy to most—Lee believes in magic and miracles and marvels—but no one can deny the wonder they leave in their wake.

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Thought Experiment: Man Vs. Bear (2024)
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