Posts Tagged ‘brain’

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.

Brain Gender in Tweens

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

About a week ago, Time.com featured an interesting article about how the brains of tween girls and boys react to potential social interaction. First of all, it’s interesting to note that the journalist is still trying to be politically correct, and tiptoeing around the facts:

Only in the past few years have scientists been able to use imaging technology to look inside men’s and women’s heads to investigate whether those stereotypical gender differences have roots in the brain. No concrete results have emerged from these studies yet

I suppose you could say that no concrete results have emerged, if you’re expecting a complete brain manual for both sexes and all individuals. However, if by concrete results you mean results that clearly demonstrate that men and women have brains that function differently, and that are structured differently, then yes – concrete results have emerged.

Interestingly enough, after firing off that politically correct introduction, the author proceeds with an almost biologically deterministic statement about the research report on tweens and social interactions:

a new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of children offers at least one explanation for some common tween social behaviors: girls are hardwired to care about one-on-one relationships with their BFFs (best friends forever), while the brains of boys are more attuned to group dynamics and competition with other boys.

I believe that biology is a very real factor in creating gender differences, but it’s important to remember that behaviors are usually a combination of biology, culture and free will. Claiming that biology only is responsible is usually a premature claim, in a world where we still need to work out the details around how biology, culture and free will affect gendered behavior – not to mention how these three factors continously interact.

This caveat aside, the research report becomes yet another piece in the puzzle of the emerging knowledge base around biological brain differences between the sexes:

The results suggest that as girls progress from early puberty to late adolescence, certain regions of their brains become more active when they face a potential social interaction. Specifically, when an older girl anticipates meeting someone new — someone she believes will be interested in her — her nucleus accumbens (which is associated with reward and motivation), hypothalamus (associated with hormone secretion), hippocampus (associated with social learning) and insula (associated with subjective feelings) all become more active. By contrast, boys in the same situation show no such increase in activity in these areas. In fact, the activity in their insula actually declines.

Finally, the author even offers us a potential explanation that is grounded in evolutionary psychology:

Perhaps it’s evidence that evolution has programmed boys to compete within large groups, so they can learn to eliminate rivals for women — and that girls have been programmed to judge, one-on-one, who would be the most protective father for offspring.

As always, it’s good to remember that evolutionary psychology is still speculatory in many ways, especially when it’s used in the context of explaining a research report that wasn’t in itself explicitly examining the validity of an evolutionary psychology claim.

Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

What is evolutionary psychology and why is it interesting in a discourse about gender issues? Marriam Webster defines evolutionary psychology as the study of human cognition and behavior with respect to their evolutionary origins. In other words, the way we think and behave nowadays, may well be adaptations to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.

A simplified way of putting it is that if a behavior or way of thinking was advantageous for thousands of years (for example during the stone age), then it may well have been hardwired into the human brain. We are not born as blank slates, and it makes sense that the programming that we are born with be useful for our survival and reproduction. However, what was useful in the past, may not be useful nowadays, even though the programming remains in our brains.

Evolutionary psychology can be a controversial field. Its proponents want to explain all human behavior using this theory, while its detractors emphasize the importance of human flexibility and continuous biological adaptation to the current cultural climate. In my opinion, the truth is somewhere in between those two polarities, and I leave it up to you to determine what importance you want to allot to each stance.

Let’s have a look at some of the basic principles of evolutionary biology and how they relate to gender issues:

  • Since women are the ones who get pregnant (since times immemorial…), women have always been forced to choose a man carefully. A woman can only carry one child at a time, and a pregnancy takes nine months, which means that she’d better choose a man with good genes, because she won’t get very many chances to pass on her own genes. She also needs a man around who’s willing to protect and provide for the child, be it the father or a man who thinks he is the father. This means that the emotional connection to the man is crucial for a women, because the emotional connection is a good indicator of whether he’ll stick around or if he’s only interested in sex.
  • The principle above changed with the introduction of the female birth control pill, which enabled women to have sex without risking pregnancy. However, the old dynamics are still part of female nature, competing with the new dynamics that the pill introduced. This means that to some extent women are still looking for a confident man who can be a good protector, and preferably a man who can provide for the child – even if she’s only interested in a sexual relationship, and not in having children.
  • Men, however, do not get pregnant and therefore don’t need to choose their sexual partners as carefully. Fathering a bastard child could potentially be done at a very low cost, if you don’t have to assume the role of father for that child. However, being a committed father has always been a very good option for men, since in past eras the survival rate of your children was much higher if you stuck around.
  • Since men can father a child at a very low cost while women cannot, women end up being the sexual selectors more often than men.
  • Men are attracted to beautiful women. Beauty in this case is not some kind of esoteric concept, it is simply another word for proportional and symmetric facial features. Since women instinctively know that their looks are important when attracting a man, we have a whole cosmetic and plastic surgery industry catering to the needs of women. Evolutionary speaking, men are attracted to female beauty, due to symmetric facial features being a predictor of good health in the past, and good health is crucial if a woman is to survive a pregnancy, and pass on the man’s genes.
  • Gay men generally care more about their looks than straight men, and know more about grooming and skin care. The reason for this is simple: gay men are looking to attract other men, and even if those other men are also gay, they are still 100 percent men – and therefore attracted to good looks. Lesbian women, on the other hand, are often more relaxed about their looks, since they are attempting to attract other women, and women care less about good looks (even though good looks are still far from unimportant).

Gender and Biology

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

Whenever gender roles and gender issues are discussed, one of the most controversial questions is whether biological hardwiring affects the behavior of men and women. Are gender specific neurohormonal factors significant enough to affect the everyday behavior and choices of each sex? Are men’s and women’s brain constructed differently, or are the differences negligible or even completely absent?

There are a few different stances that people tend to adopt when discussion biology and gender issues, and unfortunately most of them are pretty polarized:

Biological determinism. This is the belief that human beings are animals who are basically controlled by instincts and hormones. Let’s forget about the higher functions of the human brain, at our core we are simply animals who are preoccupied with survival and reproduction.

Sociocultural determinism. Everything is a cultural construction, you were born as a blank slate and then your upbringing and your culture formed you into who you are today. This is a seductive stance since it gives you a very “clean” worldview of gender issues. You remove a lot of complexity by making everything culturally constructed, and that is an attractive option if you want fast results.

Paying lip-service to multiple factors. Some people pretend to take both biology and sociocultural factors into account, but it’s obvious that they have chosen sides pretty emphatically. These people will say things like:

“I believe that biology may affect human beings in some ways but it is completely out-shadowed by our upbringing and cultural programming”.

“Of course we must take culture into account, but at our core our choices are determined by biological hardwiring”.

Seeing the truths of all research fields. In my opinion this is the only defensible stance for anyone who believes that academic science is a good thing. There is undeniable research that demonstrates the importance of sociocultural programming in shaping gender roles. On the other hand, there is undeniable research that highlights the differences in brain structure and function between men and women (and how these differences affect choices and behavior). So who is right? Both are. We are biological creatures living in a culture and environment that shapes us extensively.

Pros and Cons of Acknowledging Biology

Even if we ignore the scientific findings, proof stares us in the eyes. When looking at gender roles in different cultures we see a myriad of differences and some universal features. The differences represent sociocultural factors and the universal patterns represent biological programming. This kind of simple cross-cultural overview is a direct demonstration of how culture and biology co-create the fabric of a community or a country.

Many progressives want to avoid addressing the whole issue of gender specific biological differences, since they feel that it limits constructive social reform by sowing doubts about whether change is truly possible. After all, if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes? It certainly can be, and people who want to preserve traditional gender roles often do use biology as an argument for keeping men and women trapped in very constricted life conditions.

In light of these potential downsides to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, what are we supposed to do? How do we deal with this fairly new information that has come to us through the huge strides that science has made in the past 20 years? Do we suppress it or bring it into the gender discourse? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons…

What are the pitfalls of acknowledging biology?

  1. Neurohormonal differences between the sexes can be used as an argument for reverting to traditional gender stereotypes. As we just saw, this is already being done.
  2. Even nuanced thinkers can easily over-emphasize the influence of biology and forget about the huge importance of the sociocultural factors. This is unfortunate since we can change culture and make it more friendly for both sexes, while it’s much harder to manipulate biology.
  3. The research about biological differences could lead to pre-judging individuals, for example those who are looking for a job.

What are the consequences of banning research and pretending that biology doesn’t exist?

  1. This would be intellectually dishonest and overly controlling. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where scientists are controlled in such a way by the state!
  2. If we do not pursue this avenue of research, we will miss precious opportunities to develop better drugs to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
  3. Trying to change sociocultural trends while denying a key variable is likely to be unsuccessful. Paradoxically we will probably be more successful in transcending gender stereotypes if we acknowledge brain differences. If we instead perpetuate the myth that men and women have identical brains, then the reforms will automatically focus on eliminating gender roles completely, and having 50 percent men and 50 percent women at all workplaces. Such a vision is almost certainly incompatible with biology, and we shouldn’t waste time and money on trying to achieve an impossible goal. 

My Own View

I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.

Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.

My Vision for the Future

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

It’s easy to point out what is wrong with the current gender roles, or to point out how feminism is incomplete and sometimes plain wrong. What’s harder though, is to be able to state a positive vision for the future, without pointing out all the negatives that can be identified in the gender debate.

So what I would like to do in this post is to simply list my vision for the future, i.e. how I would like men, women and gender roles to evolve. In the not too distant future, I would like the following bullet points to become a lived reality around the world:

  • Gender stereotypes have been completely transcended, and each individual is free to pursue the life path that he or she wants. No boy, girl, woman or man is shamed for having a certain interest, or for wanting to pursue a certain career or be a homemaker. Transcending stereotypes does not necessarily mean that men and women will make the same choices on a group level, since biological differences will still remain in the brain and in bodily makeup.
  • Biological differences between the brains of men and women will no longer be ignored, since scientific research clearly shows that such differences exist. However, biological differences aren’t overemphasized either, since everyone recognizes that each individual is biologically unique, and may not have a brain that corresponds to biological sex.
  • Feminism has been replaced by a gender liberation movement that cares equally about the well-being of both sexes.
  • It has become common knowledge that traditional gender roles arose as a reaction to historical circumstances, and that it made perfect sense at one point to have those gender roles, since they were a functional fit to the current conditions. This understanding enables women and men alike to relax, and to refrain from blaming the other sex for the negative baggage that each gender role has.
  • All legislation is gender neutral, including laws concerning military service and the draft. Gays and lesbians are allowed to get married and adopt children, just like anyone else, since there is no logical reason to uphold such discrimination.
  • Men and women recognize that a marriage is not only about love, it is also something that has a huge impact on your life as a whole. Because of this, men and women form agreements when getting married about what will happen to any children if they are divorced, and how each person will survive financially in case of divorce. Financial and social capital are both valued highly when forming such agreements.
  • Biological paternity and maternity are established on all newborns using DNA testing, and legal paternity and maternity correspond to the results of such testing, unless the child is put up for adoption.
  • Discrimination is frowned upon, as are people who try to blame their own shortcomings on discrimination.
  • Schools teach children relationship skills and emotional awareness, so that the children can grow up to use these skills in the workplace and in personal relationships. This decreases the violence that both sexes instigate in the home, and the violence that men perpetrate outside the home. It also lessens the emotional manipulation of girls and women.

What is your vision for the future?


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