We are culture

From today’s New York Times:

A series of research teams have repeatedly analyzed personality tests taken by men and women in more than 60 countries around the world. For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.

These findings are so counterintuitive that some researchers have argued they must be because of cross-cultural problems with the personality tests. But after crunching new data from 40,000 men and women on six continents, David P. Schmitt and his colleagues conclude that the trends are real. Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

The biggest changes recorded by the researchers involve the personalities of men, not women. Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America.

To explain these differences, Dr. Schmitt and his collaborators from Austria and Estonia point to the hardships of life in poorer countries. They note that in some other species, environmental stress tends to disproportionately affect the larger sex and mute costly secondary sexual characteristics (like male birds’ displays of plumage). And, they say, there are examples of stress muting biological sex differences in humans. For instance, the average disparity in height between men and women isn’t as pronounced in poor countries as it is in rich countries, because boys’ growth is disproportionately stunted by stresses like malnutrition and disease.

Personality is more complicated than height, of course, and Dr. Schmitt suggests it’s affected by not just the physical but also the social stresses in traditional agricultural societies. These villagers have had to adapt their personalities to rules, hierarchies and gender roles more constraining than those in modern Western countries — or in clans of hunter-gatherers.

I’ll be reading the study. Some preliminary points: These results are seemingly contradicted by plenty of long-term studies showing that the two genders are actually converging in both behaviors and attitudes in the Western world.

I’d suggest that the reason for this seeming contradiction is pretty straightforward: For centuries, gender differences were dramatically exaggerated in the West and constantly reinforced, through custom, ritual, law, power structures, social structures, and, more recently, the media. This created profound inequalities of power between men and women. Over the course of the past three to four decades, women have gained more power and we’ve regained a measure of sanity, though I would describe our culture are still being fairly sick when it comes to issues of sex and gender.

In other words, while gender differences still seem exaggerated in the Western world, and unsurprising disparities persist between that world and others, they are less so than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. And I would argue that this is the more natural state of affairs.

Still, virtually every study I’ve ever seen does suggest some differences. As the article points out, men are persistently more competitive, and also more violent–a trait 21st-century, Western men have in common with our counterparts in less technological cultures. The evidence for this is pretty conclusive, and it meets the sniff test of most people’s experience.

It still remains the case, however, the gender roles are exquisitely sensitive to social context–as this new study reveals, yet again. Capacities for competitiveness and violence can be shaped, developed, discouraged, encouraged. “Culture and tradition are part of our flexibility, and we can, therefore, change the dictates of culture because we are culture,” writes the anthropologist Meredith Small. “This is why cultures not only evolve, they can also be forced to change, can be revolutionized.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *