Archive for August, 2009

Risk aversion strongly correlated to testosterone levels

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

The evidence for substantial innate sex differences is mounting. I’ve long been a strong advocate for acknowledging this research, instead of trying to ignore it for ideological reasons, such as the postmodern feminist stance that all gender differences are culturally constructed. On the other hand, I usually take a very conservative approach, and write phrases such as “there are certain innate differences that cannot be ignored”. However, I don’t know if that conservative approach is warranted any more. As the research is progressing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that sex differences are substantial, and not limited to a few specific areas.

This doesn’t mean that we forget about culture, or the plasticity of the human brain that allows us to adapt to a range of situations–regardless of our gender. But it does mean that we need to start acknowledging that the very organ that filters our experience of life, and the “software” that runs that organ, are substantially different between an average man and an average woman. This also means that the inner experience of being a man is different from the inner experience of being a woman.

Recently I was sent a very interesting link about new research that has been carried out to map the relationship between gender, testosterone and risk aversion (Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone. Paola Sapienzaa, Luigi Zingalesb and Dario Maestripieri, 2009). The strength of this research is that it connects a well known gender specific variable (testosterone) to a specific behavior (risk aversion). It is one thing to prove that there are innate biological differences between men and women, but it is far more convincing when a biological variable can be shown to directly affect behavior.

Let’s see what they say about the experiment:

Prior research has shown that testosterone enhances competitiveness and dominance, reduces fear, and is associated with risky behaviors like gambling and alcohol use. However, until now, the impact of testosterone on gender differences in financial risk-taking has not been explored.

The researchers, using an economic-based measure of risk aversion, found that higher levels of testosterone were associated with a greater appetite for risk in women, but not among men. However, in men and women with similar levels of testosterone, the gender difference in risk aversion disappeared. Additionally, the researchers reported that the link between risk aversion and testosterone predicted career choices after graduation: individuals who were high in testosterone and low in risk aversion chose riskier careers in finance.

In other words, the levels of testosterone that men routinely have, lead to increased risk taking, compared to the levels of testosterone that women usually have. Women who have higher than normal levels of testosterone, approach the risk taking behavior of men, simply by having increased levels of this hormone.

This is not to say that there aren’t a range  of other factors that can increase or decrease risk taking, but those factors in no way detract from the result of the researchers.

Additionally, the study demonstrated that prenatal levels of testosterone, which are much higher in boys, have an impact on risk aversion later in life:

A similar relationship between risk aversion and testosterone was also found using markers of prenatal testosterone exposure.

At this point in time, it is irresponsible to maintain the claim that sex differences are completely, or for the most part, socially constructed.

The updated list of the different research methods that support innate sex difference is thus:

  1. Mapping brain structure and function using new imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)
  2. Studying the behavior of newborns or infants
  3. Studies from the field of evolutionary psychology
  4. Cross-cultural studies
  5. Research that connects innate biological differences to specific behaviors

Misandry in the media, part 4

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Yesterday I was sent a link to a podcast (part 1, part 2) that you may want to check out. The podcast focuses on misandry in the media, a recurrent topic on this blog.

I was also sent the transcript of the podcast, and there is one section that is very interesting:

In Australia a broader and more extensive content analysis of mass media portrayals of men and male identity was undertaken in 2005 at the University of Western Sydney, by Dr Jim Macnamara.

It focused on news, features, current affairs, talk shows and lifestyle media, and found that men are widely demonised, marginalised, trivialised and objectified in non-fiction media content that allegedly presents facts, reality and “truth”.

Examine the quality and scope of the evidence. The study involved collection of all editorial content (no cherry picking) referring to or portraying men from: 650 newspaper editions (450 broadsheets and 200 tabloids), 130 magazines, 125 TV news bulletins, 147 TV current affairs programs, 125 talk show episodes, and 108 TV lifestyle program episodes. They were from the 20 highest circulation and rating newspapers, magazines and TV programs over a complete six-month period. Media articles were examined using in-depth quantitative and qualitative content analysis methodology.

This comprehensive and exhaustive research found, in volume, that fully 69 per cent of mass media reporting and commentary on men was unfavourable compared with just 12 per cent favourable and 19 per cent neutral.

Men were predominately reported or portrayed in mass media as villains, aggressors, perverts and philanderers, with more than 75 per cent of all mass media representations of men and male identities showing men in one of these four ways.

More than 80 per cent of media mentions of men, in total, were negative, compared with 18.4 per cent of mentions which showed men in a slightly positive role.

The cited study was performed in Australia, so we cannot automatically extrapolate the results to other cultures. However, my gut feeling is that the trend would be similar in every Western country that has been strongly influenced by radical and postmodern feminism.

For example, in Great Britain early feminist Doris Lessing had the following to say at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2001 (still quoting the transcript):

“I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed.”

She went on to point out-

“The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests…”

Her audience was stunned

The phenomenon of misandry in the media has also been acknowledged in a Canadian book:

Canadian authors, Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young in a controversial 2001 book, Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture reported widespread examples of “laughing at men, looking down on men, blaming men, de-humanising men, and demonising men” in modern mass media. They concluded: “… the worldview of our society has become increasingly both gynocentric (focused on the needs and problems of women) and misandric (focused on the evils and inadequacies of men)”.

Does this mean that we should now only feel sorry for men, and have men be victims? Far from it… I’m sure that stereotypes of women still exist in the media too, and I’m not interested in having either women or men take on some kind of victim role.

However, the feminist mantra of women and only women being the oppressed and stereotyped gender in the media, is beyond outdated–and anyone still making that kind of claim needs to wake up and smell the new reality that we live in.

Interesting research on mate selection

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

New Scientist recently published a very interesting article about mate selection, and whether people perceive single or attached potential partners as more attractive. The quoted research supports what many of us have long suspected (and that so called pick-up artists have been saying for years):

“The single women really, really liked the guy when he was taken,” says Melissa Burkley of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, who conducted the “mate-poaching” study with her colleague Jessica Parker.

For some reason (straight) women, but not men, find a potential partner to be more attractive if he’s already attached to another woman, even though “logically” it would be better to be interested in someone who’s not already in a relationship. But perhaps that is the key to why a taken man is more attractive? Wanting that which is forbidden?

The difference between how a single woman feels about a single man and a taken man is suprisingly large:

The most striking result was in the responses of single women. Offered a single man, 59 per cent were interested in pursuing a relationship. But when he was attached, 90 per cent said they were up for the chase.

The researchers themselves offer an intriguing explanation as to why men who are already in a relationship appear so attractive to single women:

Burkley and Parker speculate that single women may be more drawn to attached men because they’ve already been “pre-screened” by other women and found to be satisfactory as a mate, whereas single men are more of an unknown quantity.

This explanation seems very reasonable to me, however, it does not explain why men don’t have the same pattern when choosing a partner. Unless, of course, we turn to evolutionary psychology for an explanation…

Evolutionary psychology informs us that men are attracted to youth and beauty in a woman, since those factors–in the past–were related to health and the likelihood of surviving a pregnancy. Men who had a mating strategy that included pursuing this category of women, were more likely to pass on their genes, and therefore the men of today still have that tendency built in. And if you place a lot of value on external appearances, then you don’t care as much about social cues; for example who another man is interested in.

Women, on the other hand, are attracted to men with high status or who appear to be capable of attaining high status in society (or so evolutionary psychology informs us, it still needs to be validated further). If this is true, then it would make perfect sense to want the man that another woman has already preselected. After all, she wouldn’t have selected him if he wasn’t a man capable of attaining high status, right?

Anyhow, whether the research presented by Burkley and Parker can be explained by evolutionary psychology is still an open question. What we do know though, is that their research is yet another piece in the puzzle that supports the basic theoretical framework that evolutionary psychology puts forward.

Personally I do believe that evolutionary psychology has some material that cannot be ignored, and that’s the reason I write about it sometimes. However, I do not believe it to be the only relevant framework when analyzing male-female dynamics in society (or same gender dynamics for homosexuals); it is one important perspective that needs to co-exist with many other important perspectives.

The Depths of Male Disposability

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Male disposability is so deeply ingrained into the very fabric of our culture, that we rarely even think about it. And yet, it is one of the defining features of what it means to be a man. Throughout history, men have filled the roles and performed the tasks that demanded that you risk your life. The only risk that couldn’t be removed from women was that of child-bearing, but apart from that women have more or less always been kept out of harms way.

Now let’s not make the mistake that many contemporary feminists do and start talking about women’s evil oppression of men or something along those lines. Men being defined as the disposable sex was not a personal thing nor was it some kind of gender war (there wasn’t any room for a gender war in historical times). Women simply needed to be kept safe to ensure that the next generation was large enough to sustain or increase the influence of the community in question.

Nevertheless, it is important to analyze and raise awareness around male disposability, because it is truly the missing link of the gender discourse. As the early feminists put forward the very just demand that men and women be given equal rights and equal access to the labor market, the whole issue of male disposability was forgotten. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it hadn’t even been conceptualized, since it takes a higher intellectual development to deconstruct a gender role than it does to notice that men and women aren’t equal in the eyes of the law.

Early feminism was an honorable struggle, and while it may not have been the perfect way to kick off the whole gender liberation movement, focusing on women’s rights was certainly a pressing concern at the time. However, what was forgotten was that men’s rights in the public sphere, had always been accompanied by pretty harsh responsibilities (go to war, perform the dangerous jobs, work all day so you hardly ever see your family). So in one sense women were handed the rights of men, without being expected to share in the responsibilities. Another example of this way of thinking is that feminists demand that half of all board members be women, without demanding that half the soldiers or half of the garbage collectors be women.

So what are some of the ways that men remain disposable?

  • War. In every country where people can be drafted or be forced to do military service, it is only the men who are forced to fight for their country. And even when people sign up voluntarily, it is mostly men who do it (eg. US forces in Iraq).
  • As a (straight) man you are expected to protect your girlfriend/spouse/wife at all times.
  • Dangerous jobs are predominantly done by men: police officer, fire fighter, construction worker, etc.
  • Outdoor jobs are predominantly done by men: lumberjack, oil platform worker, garbage collector, etc.
  • Men still perform most of the jobs where you are expected to work insane hours, and only see your family at weekends (at best).

What’s interesting to note is that feminism often depicts male disposability as a form of male power. The men who work long hours are the men with power. The military is a sign of male power. Being a heroic fire fighter is a sign of male power, and so on.

However, as Warren Farrell says, true power is about having the freedom to shape your own life, and as long as many men automatically choose dangerous professions in order to be eligible for marriage and a family–then men cannot be said to be free. The argument could be made that women are freer than men nowadays, since every young woman knows that there are many acceptable options for a woman (work fulltime, part-time or be a housewife), and there is no expectation of choosing a “disposable career”.

This is not to say that men need to stop performing the jobs that men currently do. As you may have noticed from reading this blog, I do not believe that men and women are identical on the inside; as far as I’m concerned there is ample proof that innate sex difference exist in the brain and in behavior. This means that men may be more likely to continue choosing the dangerous jobs as well as the outdoor jobs. But the choice needs to be made consciously, rather than automatically. Also, society as a whole needs to become more conscious of  what male disposability means. The people who perform dangerous jobs should be adequately paid, and safety measures should improve continually.

I also believe that a sense of appreciation for what men do for society, and for what each man does when he’s a 24 hr lifeguard to his spouse, needs to be reinstated. At this point, especially in Western societies where feminism is strong, the appreciation for male sacrifice has dwindled, and there is more focus on the negative aspects of masculinity than on the positive ones.

The reason that society has been able to evolve so rapidly the past few hundred years, is that male sacrifice and male disposablity has been far greater than male violence or male brutality, something that we would all do well to remember.

Cross-cultural personality traits

Friday, August 14th, 2009

A friend of mine passed on a very interesting research report to me the other day. It’s called Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman?  Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 cultures (Schmitt, Voracek, Realo, Allik, 2008). The full report isn’t available online, unless you are a student or a researcher yourself, but I’ll be quoting some relevant passages.

As you may know, I’m interested in the emerging research that investigates the innate differences  between men and women. Even though innate sex differences shouldn’t be overexaggerated, it is a breath of fresh air that we are actually studying these differences, instead of pretending that they don’t exist. The whole gender discourse needs to be infused with solid research — be it biological, sociological or cross-cultural.

Innate sex difference can be studied in a few different ways:

  1. Mapping brain structure and function using new imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)
  2. Studying the behavior of newborns or infants
  3. Studying evolutionary psychology
  4. Doing cross-cultural studies

Number 2 and 4 are perhaps the two most reliable sources, since differences between newborns are innate by definition, and traits that persist across cultures can hardly be said to be culturally constructed. The article that my friend gave to me, is an excellent example of a cross-cultural study. Let’s see what the authors have to say about personality traits in different cultures:

In many studies, including several meta-analytic investigations, it has been found that men tend to be more assertive and risk taking than women, whereas women are generally higher than men in anxiety and tender-mindedness (Brody & Hall, 2000; Byrnes, Miller, & Schafer, 1999; Feingold, 1994; Kring & Gordon, 1998; Lynn & Martin, 1997; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). These sex differences in personality traits can be detected in early childhood (Else-Quest, Hyde, Goldsmith, & Van Hulle, 2006; Wilgenbusch & Merrell, 1999) and remain fairly constant across adulthood (Feingold, 1994; McCrae & Costa, 1984). The effects of these sex differences lead to predictable differences in men’s and women’s leisure behaviors, occupational preferences, and health-related outcomes (Browne, 1998; Collaer & Hines, 1995; Lippa, 2005).

Observed sex differences in personality traits such as assertiveness and anxiety also appear to be culturally pervasive (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001; Lynn & Martin, 1997). Feingold (1994) found that women in Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Poland, and Russia tended to score higher than men on scales related to the personality traits of neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Men, in contrast, scored higher in the extraversion related trait of assertiveness across cultures. In a much larger study, self-report responses to the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) across 36 cultures revealed that women in most countries are higher in several traits related to neuroticism, agreeableness, warmth, and openness to feelings, whereas men score higher on scales measuring assertiveness and openness to ideas (Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002).

In other words: important sex differences in personality traits persist across cultures to an extent that would be highly unlikely if these traits weren’t inborn. This is of course what evolutionary psychologists have been claiming all along, but here we have a wealth of actual research backing up those claims.

However, the study itself was not only about validating these sex difference in personality traits across cultures (though it did that too), it was also about comparing the magnitude of these sex differences in traditional and modern societies. Many of us probably believe that sex differences become smaller in post-traditional societies, due to gender equality and women entering the work force. But this research presents some counter-intuitive results:

Sex differences in most personality traits, however, are not uniform in magnitude across all samples. At times, sex differences can be much larger in some cultures than in others (Fischer & Manstead, 2000; Guimond et al., 2007; Schwartz & Rubel, 2005). One unexpected finding has been that sex differences in personality traits are often larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with men (Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002). Both in self-report and in other-report data, Asian and African cultures generally show the smallest sex differences, whereas European and American cultures—in which living standard and gender equity indexes are generally higher—show the largest differences (McCrae et al., 2005). With improved national wealth and equality of the sexes, it seems differences between men and women in personality traits do not diminish. On the contrary, the differences become conspicuously larger.

This study provides strong support for the claim that with greater human development and with greater opportunities for gender equality, the personalities of men and women do not become more similar (see also Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002; McCrae et al., 2005). To the contrary, in more prosperous and egalitarian societies the personality profiles of men and women become decidedly less similar. Moreover, these changes appear to result from men’s cross-cultural personality variation. In more traditional and less developed cultures a man is, indeed, more like a woman, at least in terms of self-reported personality traits.

These are interesting findings indeed. The explanation that the authors offer is that in traditional societies, people are restrained by the lack of resources, making individual differences smaller. For example, if everyone is starving, then everyone will be short, but if everyone gets enough food then individual height differences will be more prominent. Similarly, when men and women have ample resources and the freedom to choose their own lifestyles, innate differences will be more prominent than in a traditional society where everyone needs to sacrifice individual needs to help secure food and safety.

Ironically, the more egalitarian we become, the more we can expect men and women to display different personality traits. This may not be what some feminists intended, but it appears to be an unavoidable consequence of “releasing” the innate differences into action.