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Written by fabiorojas

January 21, 2018 at 5:01 am

biology and gender differences in personality

Andy Perrin responded on Scatterplot to a Twitter debate that happened yesterday and I couldn’t resist adding two cents. It started with a link posted by Nicholas Christakis to a review article on gender differences in personality across societies. The main claim of the article is that gender differences in personality are larger in more gender-egalitarian countries, providing support for evolutionary theories of gender differences and against social role theories, which would predict gender convergence in egalitarian countries.

Steve Vaisey commented, “I am genuinely interested to hear how sociologists who study gender would react to these findings.” Andy’s response, which is as usual worth reading, argued against the study’s interpretation from a social constructionist perspective.

This sent me down the rabbit hole of actually reading the article and a bit of the research it is based on. I am not impressed.

Let me qualify that I am not a gender scholar, nor am I deeply familiar with this literature. My priors are that gender differences in personality are both biological and social, but that the average person (obviously not everyone) is insufficiently skeptical of biological explanations because they fit our expectations and stereotypes. I am inclined to be doubtful about this kind of research, but open to evidence.

Here’s two reasons this article left me underwhelmed.

First, the lit review is sloppy in a way that makes me not trust the authors about other things — say, the quality of their data collection across relatively small samples in dozens of countries. It sets up social role theory as a straw man (“social role theories of gender development contend any and all ostensible differences between men and women are primarily the result of perceived gender roles” [p. 47], when the debate is really about relative importance, not “any and all ostensible differences”). It quotes from an article about social role theory (“men and women have inherited the same evolved psychological dispositions” [p. 47]), but the page is not part of the article, and the quote does not seem to appear in the article at all. Based on Googling, it appears to come from a misquote in an edited volume. This may seem trivial, but if you’re asking me to trust that you used good research methods on a study that involved data collection in 50+ countries, I’d like to know that I can count on you to represent the literature accurately.

Second, I dug into one of the more prominent empirical studies in the review, by the same lead author. The review describes the study like this:

More egalitarian gender roles, gender socialization and sociopolitical gender equity, however, were associated with larger gender differences. For example, the largest overall gender differences in personality were found in relatively high gender egalitarian cultures of France (d = −0.44) and the Netherlands (d = −0.36), whereas the smallest gender differences were found in the relatively low gender egalitarian cultures of Botswana (d = 0.00) and India (d = −0.01).

The examples here are somewhat cherry-picked. Yes, these are the top two and bottom two countries. But if you look at their whole chart (p. 173), there’s more to the story. The five countries with the biggest gender differences in personality (measured as mean gender difference in big-five traits) are France, Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Belgium. The five most gender-similar countries are Indonesia, Congo, Fiji, Botswana, and Finland.

If we look at the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap indicator, France is the only country on the top five that makes it into even the top 20 countries for gender equality. Brazil and the Czech Republic are both basically at the global median. Finland, which has among the most similar personality scores by gender, is the third most gender-equal country in the world. So while correlations may be there across all countries, this is hardly dispositive unless you can come up some explanation for why gender egalitarianism leads to personality difference across genders in France, but similarity in Finland.

And when they actually dig into the relationships, they appear to be flimsy and overstated. The study examines nine country-level measures of gender equality. After controlling for the country’s development level, only four measures show a significant relationship to the gender-personality gap at the p < 0.05 level (p. 177). So by most measures, the study finds no relationship. Notably, neither of the UN composite measures of gender equality, the Gender Empowerment Measure and Gender Development Index, are significantly related.

The four measures that appear to be related to mean country-level gender difference in personality are 1) traditional values, 2) cultural trust (“can most people be trusted”), 3) the gender gap in smoking, and 4) “when the respondents are more inclined to agree with a question irrespective its content” [sic — I don’t even know what that means]. Two of these seem very questionably related to gender, and I’m going to discount those.

That leaves us with the following: countries with more traditional values have less sex differentiation in personality traits, and countries where women smoke a lot have more sex differentiation in personality traits. Both relationships are significant at the p < 0.05 level — but note that we have already run through several possible measures that turned out not to be significant.

From this, the study winds back up to its dramatic conclusion: “in more prosperous and egalitarian societies the personality profiles of men and women become decidedly less similar” (p. 178). More prosperous, yes: development level, not gender equality, is the best explainer of gender-personality differences. But more egalitarian? Color me unconvinced.

And from that, the abstract jumps to: “It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations.” Wow. The word “naturally” is doing an awful lot of work there.

The review article covers a bunch of other studies, too, but based on what I’ve read it does not seem worth the time to dive in further. My priors — that personality differences are both biological and social, and that people are too credulous of biological explanations of gender differences — remain unchanged.

Written by epopp

December 20, 2017 at 9:01 pm

critique of a recent ajs genetics paper: levi-martin v. guo, li, wang, cai and duncan

John Levi-Martin has written a comment on a recent paper by Guo, Li, Wang, Cai, and Duncan  claiming that the social contagion of binge drinking associated with a medium genetic propensity. Levi-Martin claims that GLWCD having simply misread their data:

Guo, Li, Wang, Cai and Duncan (2015) recently claimed to have provided evidence for a
general theory of gene-environment interaction. The theory holds that those who are labelled as having high or low genetic propensity to alcohol use will be unresponsive to environmental factors that predict binge-drinking among those of moderate propensity. They actually demonstrate evidence against their theory, but do not seem to have understood this.
The main claim is that GLWCD are testing against nulls rather than properly estimating a U-shaped effect:
This is consequential because of the way that choose to examine their data. Although
the verbal description of the swing theory here refers to the comparison of magnitudes  (“more likely”), the methods used by GLWCD involve successive tests of the null hypothesis across three subsets formed by partitioning the sample by level of what is termed genetic propensity. If we denote these three subsets L, M and H, standing for low, medium and high propensity, then, for the kth predictor, they estimate three slopes, bLk, bMk, and bHk. Because the swing theory does not require that any particular predictor have an effect, but only that if it does, it does not in the extreme propensity tiers, this theory holds that for any k, bLk≈bHk≈ 0.
Publishing note: The comment is on SocArXiv for all to read. If the criticism holds water, it’s a shame that it is not in a journal, preferably the AJS. If journals simply aren’t interested in error correction, then they simply aren’t into science.
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Written by fabiorojas

November 21, 2016 at 3:29 am

the bio-complexity challenge to economics

Economics is fun to criticize, but hard to replace. Everybody thinks they can do better. How many times have you read an article lampooning the rational actor model or slamming the efficient markets hypothesis? Well, another research group has appeared that tries to offer a replacement. From New Scientist:

Earlier this year, several dozen quiet radicals met in a boxy red building on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, to plot just that. The stated aim of this Ernst Strüngmann Forum at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies was to create “a new synthesis for economics”. But the most zealous of the participants – an unlikely alliance of economists, anthropologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists – really do want to overthrow the old regime. They hope their ideas will mark the beginning of a new movement to rework economics using tools from more successful scientific disciplines.

Drill down, and it’s not difficult to see where mainstream “neoclassical” economics has gone wrong. Since the 19th century, economies have essentially been described with mathematical formulae. This elevated economics above most social sciences and allowed forecasting. But it comes at the price of ignoring the complexities of human beings and their interactions – the things that actually make economic systems tick.

 The problems start with Homo economicus, a species of fantasy beings who stand at the centre of orthodox economics. All members of H. economicus think rationally and act in their own self-interest at all times, never learning from or considering others.

The article then goes on to describe how they are building new set of models that have social rather than selfish actors. They are going to use models from biological theory to model large groups of economic agents.

More power to them, but here’s the deal with economics – it survives because it has a number of very strong features:

  • A basic micro-economics that makes sense (e.g., supply and demand curves, marginal utility etc)
  • Rational actor models are just short hand for “has goals, which can be selfish or altruistic.” My friend, rational does not mean what you think it means.
  • A good grasp of various statistical methods.
  • A good recipe for normal science (define utility functions, apply Langrangian, etc)

For an alternative economics to win, it needs to be so incredibly awesome that it overwhelms these very important features of existing economics. That is why various challengers, such as feminist economics or modern Austrian economics, are limited. They sometimes have valid criticisms, but they simply don’t do well when it comes to offering a real alternative. So, good luck, my biological friends, but don’t get lost in the weeds.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 30, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in biology, economics, fabio