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:
- Mapping brain structure and function using new imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)
- Studying the behavior of newborns or infants
- Studying evolutionary psychology
- 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.