September 13, 2008

Questionable conclusions

Posted in bunk science, ethnocentrism, gender, gender roles, gender stereotypes, New York Times at 11:50 pm by LB

The recent article from the New York Times, “As Barriers Disappear, Some Gender Gaps Widen
discusses a scientific study that I find highly questionable. Apparently, the same-old gendered personalities keep resurfacing in personality tests. Psychologists disagree on the origin of the differences: evolutionary vs. socialization. The article asserts that the latter believes that

personality differences will shrink as women spend less time nurturing children and more time in jobs outside the home.

So the effect of “traditional gender roles” will be eradicated when women are in the workforce more and do child care less? That seems overly optimistic at best, naieve and ignorant about the pervasiveness of gender socialization at worst. But that’s not my real critique.

Several research groups have been studying personality tests sorted by gender on a global basis, and have found that the gender gap in personality tests is smaller in countries that have “more traditional” cultures. What I think they mean by poorly-worded and undefined “traditional” is less industrialized and perhaps more institutionally religious. Because the U.S. sure has a kind of “traditional culture” too–of capitalism and consumerism. What their designation really refers to, in my view, is cultures that are more obviously and directly patriarchal, since the article says,

A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France.

But again, not my main point.

Since this seems counterintuitive to researchers–surely, our more “advanced” societies, full of legal equality and post-post-industrial economies and wealth coming out of our asses should have less gender disparity in individual personalities. So after another study, looking at 40,000 people, on researcher has concluded that

as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

(I think he meant to say “less external legal barriers.”)

The very next statement in the Times article completely contradicts the researcher’s own conclusion, if you actually think about it:

The biggest changes recorded by the researchers involve the personalities of men, not women. Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America.

Gee, assertiveness, competitive, lack of concern….surely the presence of these qualities has nothing to do with, for one, western constructions of masculinity?! And what is the implication then, that non-western, less industrialized male populations are too “feminine”? I thought the anti-feminist work of Kathleen Parker already told us that feminism has emasculated American men?! The study itself says the following:

masculinity–femininity describes the extent of emphasis on work goals (earnings, advancement, and assertiveness) as opposed to interpersonal goals (friendly atmosphere, getting along with the boss) and nurturance (higher masculinity–femininity scores reflect masculinity)

Interestingly, but not unsurprisingly, a very Western definition of gender. No wonder “traditional” cultures, that may not make the gendered public/private divide the same way it has been made in industrial and post-industrial American culture, seem to have less gendered personalities. The researchers used a cultural definition of gender as a neutral “fact” of “sex” and then applied them to other nations and cultures whose notions of gender are likely different, and not because they are “less than.” (see p. 172 of the study for more equally problematic indicators of gender equality). I’ll come back to this ethnocentrism.

Research author David P. Schmitt concludes that the social and physical stresses of life in “traditional” cultures mutes secondary sex characteristics, like a gendered personality. Just like male birds losing their colorful plumage under duress and men not growing to be as tall in environments with poor nutrition. Riiight, those are solid analogies.

The article goes on to say,

These villagers have had to adapt their personalities to rules, hierarchies and gender roles more constraining than those in modern Western countries — or in clans of hunter-gatherers.

Because hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is so like our modern Western gender equality! Phew, now I can stop wasting my time on gender and economic equality. But this argument doesn’t even make sense: those in “traditional” cultures have to adopt their personalities to meet the social expectations of gender role, yet they are the ones with the most alike personalities? Shouldn’t they be the ones with the most differing?

But wait, that wouldn’t help evolutionary biologists! Noooo, people’s personalities in “traditional cultures” are more alike because the stresses of rigid gender expectations (in the form of legally-institutionalized patriarchy and inequality) causes them to lose their secondary sex characteristics–their gendered personality. And surely, our culture has nooo gender expectations, institutionalized or otherwise.

“In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots,” he argues. “That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men’s, and to a lesser extent women’s, more ‘natural’ personality traits to emerge.”

So hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, and since modern Western society has basically eradicated gender-based inequality and institutionalized sexism, we’re returning to our natural gendered selves in our non-stressful and sexism-free society.

I love how legal equality becomes conflated with social equality and economic equality. And political equality? Does he mean the right to vote? Because women, especially minority women, are vastly underrepresented in national American politics.

My thoughts? Maybe, just maybe, we’re so freakin’ attached to gender to say “everything” about who we are as people that when certain gender norms change (i.e. women’s market employment), others get exaggerated (the personal “performance” of gender). That sure has been seen to be the case in dual-income families: when women are the breadwinners, their job and provider status are often downplayed within the couple and in social situations, to not challenge the masculinity of the men (see Veronica Jaris Tichenor “Status and Income as Gendered Resources: The Case of Marital Power.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61.3 (1999): 638-650). And when women’s and men’s incomes are equal, they tend to share the housework (until children arrive), but when men’s is more and when men’s is less, women do more. (see Theodore N. Greenstein “Economic Dependence, Gender, and the Division in the Home: A Replication and Extension.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62.2 (2000): 322-335). Women do more housework, because the men do less, when they earn substantially more than their husbands? Talk about a gender display! And maybe Dr. Schmitt overlooked how legal equality doesn’t necessarily change the agents of socialization (family, media, religion, school, etc.).

Did he look to other factors besides gender to explain individuals’ personality differences? It’s so easy to see difference by identity categories and assume that they’re its cause. Maybe if the data were “sorted” differently than by gender, a different patter of explanation might emerge.

And what about individual (not regional) class/economic prosperity differences? I mean, the idea of women being the ultimate nurturer and staying at home is historically a very middle and upper-class phenomenon, and historically also a very white experience. The form of the economic system and one’s own affluence influence how gender is produced in significant ways.

Perhaps part of his misguidance is in his stated aims (“Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures”:

The second aim in the current study was to provide evidence that could constrain the range of possible explanations for the widening gap between men’s and women’s personality traits in developed and more egalitarian countries.

In other words, he wanted to know the reason for the widening gap in the Western, industrialized world, not why it wasn’t so much in “other” cultures. It is likely that this ethnocentric perspective could find no fault in our “developed” and “egalitarian” ( who does he think is egalitarian?) countries, and thus the reason for the our widening personality gap could only be explained in a positive, evolutionary light. Looking into positive reasons why “traditional” cultures are more alike doesn’t seem to cross his mind–clearly, we don’t want to be interested in the “backward”!

And funny, this part of his study also wasn’t reported in the Times piece:

Thus far, there have been only two studies in which the widening gap between the personalities of men and women in more modern cultures has been reported. In both cases, the NEO-PI-R was used, either in selfreport (Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002) or in observer-report (McCrae et al., 2005) formats. Therefore, it is unknown whether this observed regularity across cultures is produced by the NEOPI-R instrument itself and is not replicated by other personality measures.

The Times made the widening gap sound like an overwhelming social fact!

My big ire is that studies like these, and reports like these, assume that there could be nothing wrong with the form our society has taken, that gender roles come from one place–the law, that socialization means nothing, and that equality is assumed to have been fully achieved (thanks, Susan B. and the never-passed ERA! And seriously, what industrialized country’s culture can really be described as fully “egalitarian”?! Surely not the U.S.) My next ire is in the gender-absolutism and ethnocentrism emulated in this research.

Sorry for this in-depth research analysis, but I just taught this week on social research methods and evaluating good research, so I was in the mood.

(Cross-posted to The Reaction)


  1. Brianna said,

    Very impressive analysis. What stood out for me:

    “masculinity–femininity describes the extent of emphasis on work goals (earnings, advancement, and assertiveness) as opposed to interpersonal goals (friendly atmosphere, getting along with the boss) and nurturance (higher masculinity–femininity scores reflect masculinity)”

    With definitions like these, who needs bad research?!

    Anyway, the Times article looks like a classic case of confusing causation with correlation.

  2. Suzanne said,

    What irks me is the amount of bogus research that gets published, consumed and worse yet used to form policy. (I’m a fledgling researcher myself)

    My field, education, is riddled with pseudo-science turned fact. I take issue with the over reliance on scientific method as a thought-paradigm. It’s only marginally useful for understanding human endeavors. What we’re really trying to understand are the constructs our little researcher brains like to invent and then use because that’s what you do with them. I mean, if you have Lincoln logs, you build a log house.

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