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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.

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Written by epopp

December 20, 2017 at 9:01 pm

conspiracy theory, donald trump, and birtherism: a new article by joe digrazia

search-images

Joe DiGrazia, a recent IU PhD and post-doc at Dartmouth, has a really great article in Socious, the ASA’s new online open access journal. The article, The Social Determinants of Conspiratorial Ideation, investigates the rise in conspiratorial thinking on the Internet. He looks at state level Google searches for Obama birtherism and then compares to non political types of conspiracy theory, like Illuminati.

The findings? Not surprisingly, people search for conspiracy related terms in places with a great deal of social change, such as unemployment, changes in government, and demographic shift. This is especially important research given that Donald Trump first rose to political prominence as a birther. This research is indispensable for anyone trying to understand the forces that are shaping American politics today.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

February 8, 2017 at 12:22 am

article discussion: is marriage an all or nothing institution? by finkel et al. (2015)

Starting on July 1, we will discuss “The Suffocation Model: Why Marriage in America is Becoming an All or Nothing Institution” by Finkel et al. This appeared last summer in Directions in Psychological Science. The discussion will be less intense than a full blown book forum, but we will dedicate one or two posts to it. This article was suggested by Chris Martin.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

June 17, 2016 at 12:28 am

happiness paradox

My colleague Johan Bollen and his colleagues have been working on a project that tries to measure and verify the “happiness paradox,” which is an extension and elaboration of the “friendship paradox.” From the MIT technology review:

The friendship paradox is straightforward to explain. It comes about because of the skewed way people collect friends on online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Most people have a small number of friends—a few dozen or so. But a tiny fraction of people have huge numbers of friends millions or tens of millions of followers in some cases.

This has two effects. First, it makes them much more likely to appear in a random person’s list of friends. And second, it dramatically skews the answer when calculating the average number of friends that a person’s friends have.

Bollen et al then explain the analogous happiness paradox:

Bollen and co begin by analyzing the most recent 3,000 tweets sent by some 40,000 Twitter users. They use a standard algorithm to analyze each tweet to determine its sentiment—whether positive or negative—and then assume this gives a sense of the user’s happiness level. In other words, they assume that people who are less happy send more negative tweets. They also include in the analysis the number of followers and followees for each individual.

The results make for interesting reading. Bollen and co say there is clear friendship paradox at work in this network, as expected. But they also say there is a less striking but nonetheless significant happiness paradox at work, too.

Indeed, Bollen co say their evidence suggests that the more unhappy the individual, the stronger the happiness paradox they face. “Although happy and unhappy groups of subjects are both affected by a significant happiness paradox, unhappy subjects are most strongly affected,” they say.

The original paper is here. Recommended.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

 

Written by fabiorojas

March 7, 2016 at 4:25 am

let the children play! it’s good for their mental health

Psychology Today has an article on a new analysis of play and the mental health of young people. The gist is that (a) recently, we let kids have less unstructured play and (b) unstructured play increases the belief that one has direct control over their life, which in turn has positive effect on mental health and various measures of well being. From the article:

The standard measure of sense of control is a questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. The questionnaire consists of 23 pairs of statements. One statement in each pair represents belief in an Internal locus of control (control by the person) and the other represents belief in an External locus of control (control by circumstances outside of the person). The person taking the test must decide which statement in each pair is more true. One pair, for example, is the following:

  • (a) I have found that what is going to happen will happen.
  • (b) Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.

In this case, choice (a) represents an External locus of control and (b) represents an Internal locus of control.

Many studies over the years have shown that people who score toward the Internal end of Rotter’s scale fare better in life than do those who score toward the External end.[2] They are more likely to get good jobs that they enjoy, take care of their health, and play active roles in their communities—and they are less likely to become anxious or depressed.

And:

In a research study published a few years ago, Twenge and her colleagues analyzed the results of many previous studies that used Rotter’s Scale with young people from 1960 through 2002.[3] They found that over this period average scores shifted dramatically—for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students—away from the Internal toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter’s scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.  

[Correction: The locus of control data used by Twenge and her colleagues for children age 9 to 14 came from the Nowicki-Strickland Scale, developed by Bonnie Strickland and Steve Nowicki, not from the Rotter Scale. Their scale is similar to Rotter’s, but modified for use with children.]

It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of Externality (and decline of Internality) is causally related to the rise in anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

Wow. Later in the article, they talk about how this shift correlates with mental health outcomes. So don’t schedule them or boss the, let them play.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio, psychology

how to live a good life, the social science answer

This week, I will spend quite a bit of time discussing a book called The Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant. I’ve written briefly about the book before, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the book until I assigned it for a class. Roughly speaking, the book follows a cohort of college men from the 1940s to the mid 2000s. Thus, the book tracks people from young adulthood to old age. It’s a powerful book in that it uses enormously rich data to analyze the life course and identify factors that contribute to our well being. You won’t find many other books that have such deep data to address one of life’s most important questions – What makes us happy? What is the good life?

In this first post, I want to briefly summarize the book and then note a few drawbacks. Later this week, I want to delve into two topics in more detail: alcoholism and parental bonds. To start: the Grant Study of Human development randomly selected a few hundred male Harvard undergrads for a long term study on health and the life course. It’s a biased sample, but it’s well suited for studying long life and work (remember, many women became home makers in that era) while controlling for educational attainment. The strength of this book is an ability to mine rich qualitative data on the life course and then mapping the associations over decades. The data is rich enough that the authors can actually consider alternative hypotheses and build multi-cause explanations.

A few drawbacks: Rhetorically, I thought the book was a bit wordier and longer than it needed to be. Also, I wish that the book had a glossary or appendix where one can look up definitions. More importantly, this book will note be convincing to folks who are obsessed with identification. It is very “1960s” in that they collect a lot of data and then channel their energies into looking at cross-group differences. But still, considering that doing RCT with your family is not possible and the importance of the data, I’m willing to forgive. Wednesday: The importance of your family.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

May 4, 2015 at 6:03 pm

asian american privilege? a skeptical, but nuanced, view, and a call for more research – a guest post by raj ghoshal and diana pan

Raj Andrew Ghoshal is an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College and Yung-yi Diana Pan is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. This guest post is a discussion of Asian Americans and their status in American society.

As a guest post last month noted, Asian Americans enjoy higher average incomes than whites in the United States. We were critical of much in that post, but believe it raises an under-examined question: Where do Asian Americans stand in the US racial system? In this post, we argue that claims of Asian American privilege are premature, and that Asian Americans’ standing raises interesting questions about the nature of race systems.

We distinguish two dimensions of racial stratification: (1) a more formal, mainly economic hierarchy, and (2) a system of social inclusion/exclusion. This is a line of argument developed by various scholars under different names, and in some ways parallels claims that racial sterotypes concern both warmth and competence. We see Asian Americans as still behind in the more informal system of inclusion/exclusion, while close (but not equal) to whites in the formal hierarchy. Here’s why.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

February 4, 2015 at 12:01 am