Monday, April 15, 2013

Men and Women: Different Planets or Not? Part 1

When it comes to love, or most things in life, are most men and women really just from Earth and not on different planets? Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis recently published a (great) paper on this subject in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. You can find the abstract for this paper online, here. Many media stories were appropriately nuanced though, I must say, judging from my reading of tweets and various news accounts, other outlets did overplay the idea that there are no differences between men and women. Here are a few examples of some of the solid media stories on their research.  (Here and Here and There).

Carothers and Reis did something different from what has been done before. They conducted a variety of complex statistical procedures to examine if differences between men and women that are commonly assumed to exist (and often found) were more a matter of degree or of type.  That’s a pretty interesting way to study this.

One of the links above is for an example in a Huffington Post piece by Emma Gray (the first of the three links to other stories above). She presents very nice graphs of differences in men and women on physical strength versus assertiveness. You can see the type of thing that Carothers and Reis were studying very nicely in those graphs. On physical strength, there is a clear, distinct, difference between men and women—different types. In contrast, on assertiveness, there is a messy, complicated pattern that reflects more of a difference that is an uneven matter of degree. Strength: different planets. Assertiveness: different zip codes, and pretty much coed living zones at that.

Here’s a way to think about some of their findings. Let’s say you have a new job at a mall. You have been put in charge of directing people to the restroom when they ask where it is. But you only get to know one piece of information about a person to tell them where to go when they need to go. You do not get to see or hear the person needing direction. You just know one small piece of information. It’s really a strange job, but in these times, you hang onto what you can.

Okay, on day one of your new job, you get to know how physically strong a person is before you decide which way to send him or her. In your awesomeness, you send most people to the right restroom. You miss some, but you are mostly on a roll. On the next day, you only get to know the scores of people on a little paper and pencil test of assertiveness. Therefore, you only really know how assertive each person thinks he or she is. It’s a much harder day and you do pretty poorly. In fact, you send people to the wrong restroom 45% of the time. Ouch. There are complaints. But you have renewed hope about the third day because, on the third day, you will get to know how much people say they love to have just sit and talk with their best friends before deciding which restroom to send them off to use. It will be a better day.

The strength difference really works more like a difference in type. An individual’s level of assertiveness is just not very informative about if they are a male or a female.

Carothers and Reis refer to differences as either dimensional or taxonic. If it’s dimensional, it’s something men and women may have an average difference but they are not in different planetary orbits. When things are dimensional (as in one dimensional), there might be a difference with males or females tending to score higher or lower, but the overlap in the range of scores is so great that you are better off learning who the individual is than making any assumptions based on knowing their sex.

What did Carothers and Reis find? Here’s a summary. They write:

Although gender differences on average are not under dispute, the idea of consistently and inflexibly gender-typed individuals is. That is, there are not two distinct genders, but instead there are linear gradations of variables associated with sex, such as masculinity or intimacy, all of which are continuous (like most social, psychological, and individual difference variables).

Carothers and Reis found that the evidence suggests men and women live on the same planet when it comes to variables such as the following:

Masculinity/Femininity (measured on questionnaires about attitudes)     
Fear of Success                                            
Science Inclination                                     
Personality traits                                        
Centrality of concepts like caring, trust, support to what one thinks love is
Sexual attitudes and behaviors

Keep in mind they are not saying there are no differences between men and women on these dimensions, just that the differences were not really differences in type. They also were not studying everything. For example, their paper does not discuss other dimensions such as abilities in math, languages, science, etc. There are other whole literatures on those types of variables (and most are dimensional as well, even though these sophisticated types of analyses have maybe not been done on those dimensions yet.)

How about Taxons? What variables did they find evidence of planetary differences?

Physical Strength (as noted above)
Anthropometric measurements
Sex-stereotyped Activities

In that latter category, questions were asked about enjoyment of things such as playing golf, boxing, construction, watching pornography, scrapbooking, beauty design, watching talk shows.  You get the idea. Yes, men and women seemed categorically different in their interests in these things—and I bet you can pretty directly guess how those differences played out.

Next time, I will talk more about two of the categories above: (1) sexual attitudes and behaviors and (2) sex-stereotypes activities. The findings were more nuanced than my simple summary here suggests on the first of these, and the findings were more gendered than many media stories suggested, based on the latter.  More to come.