Sex-Based Personality Differences Struggle to Exist
Del Giudice M, Booth T, & Irwing P (2012). The distance between Mars and venus: measuring global sex differences in personality. PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22238596
Where I live in Sydney City is fast becoming the young pewf capital of the world, which is something of a mixed blessing for an ageing queen like me but also, sets the stage for a fascinating social experiment. Hyper-masculine muscled guys who can usually only be confirmed as gay by partners attached, parade tank-topped in even the coldest weather around the local Coles Supermarket. Sometimes they leave their pampered pets, poodles or pit bulls, lassoed out the front and sometimes they momentarily give away, through high pitched laughter or spirit fingers or a pre-drenching of Euro cologne, symbols of pewf personality traits long since consigned to history. Just to mix things up further, at any time of the day or night, cute young straight Asian couples wearing designer pyjamas can saunter in to stock up on Western goodies…
I suppose I want to believe what Hyde (2005) claimed is true, that is, that there are only minor psychological differences between category ‘male’ and category ‘female’ (2012, n. pag.). Why is that? Well, for one, I have spent the past 150 years studying men and masculinity and from those observations I have come to realise that claims which split men and women far and wide purely on the basis of sex are wholly factitious. Oh sure, it makes for great pulp fiction and dud training courses and totally lame government policy but in reality, it has no legs. What we think is demonstrable proof of men behaving like men should is always a $2 postcard for a tome far more complex – which is why this article by del Giudice et al. (2012) made me smile.
The authors are so god-damn awfully brash about being able to squeeze an elephant into a thimble. For example, they conclude that divorce-ability can be reduced to ‘neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and (to a smaller extent) low agreeableness’ (2012, n.pag.). Indeed, it is this squeezing of particular personality traits into either of the two categories available that both proves those allegedly robust sex-based differences but also exposes substantial methodological flaws in said attribution. Women do seem to be warmer and more caring, men more dominant and risk taking, women more interested in the aesthetic and men, the logic (2012). The clustering of specific personality traits according to sex does thus lend itself to that phenomenon being called natural.
Yes, women could be from Venus and men, from Mars…
However, as any good sociologist knows, while a raft of sex-based personality differences clearly exists, the aetiology of those differences is not natural in a biological sense. Conversely, we learn from the year dot that we are expected to think and behave in certain ways according to our sex. That at times some of us do just that, in more or less degree, gives phoney creed to the evolutionary foundations of those personality traits (2012). Separating out which causes what to whom is a problematic given passing mention by the authors before they quickly move on to announce their own expansive set of ‘guidelines for the accurate quantification of sex differences in personality’, guidelines that emphasise measurement ‘at the level of narrow traits’ (2012).
What del Giudice et al. (2012) fail to grasp is that comparing men and women according to factors like…
- emotional stability,
- dominance and
- liveliness from, in this case, self-reports, tells us little more than that is how those men and women thought that they should respond to the questions asked at that particular point in time.
It reveals nothing about how each of those participants came to think that way nor does it reveal if they always think that way but most significantly, I would argue, it does not reveal if that is the way those participants practice or perform those personality traits, from one situation to the next. When bleating on about the need for accurate methodology and ‘accurate empirical data’ (2012), the irony is that the authors here seem so blissfully unaware of the shortcomings of their own research.
I would suggest that the critical gap in knowledge about this subject area is not to quantify the existence of sex-based personality traits but instead, to explore those discrete settings in which men and women conform to or deviate from social expectations of how they should behave. For example, anyone who subverts the commonly-held assumption that men bottle up their emotions, immediately raises important research questions like, what enabled that behaviour, was it against type, were there consequences for so behaving and would the subject do it again? Now that is a far more enlightening endeavour than trying to squeeze men and women and their grab bags of personality traits into pre-defined, sex-based pigeon holes!
Not born or made but a choice to be that way…
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