Monday, October 27, 2014

A few things I've learned about psychological gender differences and feminism

Queen Bey

In the outrage that followed some remarks made by author, Sam Harris, earlier this month, I set out to better understand what we know about psychological gender differences. When it became clear to me that there was very reasonable (though admittedly, not perfect) evidence that men tend to be more aggressive and women tend to be more nurturing, I suggested that the charges of sexism that many, including U of C Freethinker , HJ Hornbeck, were advancing and defending on social media just couldn’t stick. I gave Hornbeck a chance to defend his accusation here on Skepsis, and he took that opportunity to level two more charges of sexism against Harris. Hornbeck thought he did well enough defending himself that he did not retract his charges or apologize for any of them. I’m grateful that he did engage me and the evidence, and I'm happy to let you, my readers, look over all of our exchanges here and here and make up your own minds about whether Harris' comments were, in fact, sexist.

Now that the dust has settled, I thought it might be of interest to see just where the literature stands regarding gender differences. Thankfully, perhaps the foremost authority on the topic, Dr. Janet S. Hyde, published a thorough review just this year. Hyde is recognized as having coined the “gender similarities hypothesis”. Her 2005 meta-analysis of meta-analyses showed that, contrary to the popular opinion that men are from mars and women are from venus, the genders are much more similar than they are different. Here’s what she recently had to say among her concluding remarks:
“Overall, based on the numerous meta-analyses reported here, there is much evidence in support of the gender similarities hypothesis. Domains in which gender differences are small (around d = 0.20) or trivial (d ≤ 0.10) include mathematics performance, verbal skills, some personality dimensions such as gregariousness and conscientiousness, reward sensitivity, the temperament dimension of negative affectivity, relational aggression, tentative speech, some aspects of sexuality (e.g., oral sex experience, attitudes about extramarital sex, attitudes about masturbation), leadership effectiveness, self-esteem, and academic self-concept.

Nonetheless, the gender similarities hypothesis acknowledges exceptions to the general rule. Exceptions to gender similarities, where differences are moderate (d = 0.50) or large (d = 0.80), include 3D mental rotation, the personality dimension of agreeableness/tender-mindedness, sensation seeking, interests in things versus people, physical aggression, some sexual behaviors (masturbation and pornography use), and attitudes about casual sex.
 This review also reveals much evidence of the importance of context in creating or erasing gender differences. For example, deindividuation, which removes the influence of gender roles, erases the gender difference in aggression.”- Janet S. Hyde PhD, 2014 (bold emphasis is mine)

The first thing to note is that though similarities outnumber differences, there are some exceptions and they include an at least moderate difference in agreeableness/tendermindedness, which is the term used in this research that entails nurturing. This is precisely what Dr. Yanna Weisberg, whose 2011 work I referenced in my last entry, described and concluded. A moderate difference means that about 75% of women will rank above the mean agreeableness of men, and that there is a 2 out of 3 chance that a random female will exceed the agreeableness of a random male.

The situation with aggression, where moderate-large differences have been identified, is interesting, and Hornbeck pointed it out during our exchange. In one experiment, when gender identity was concealed, the difference in aggression disappeared, suggesting that socialized gender roles were involved in whatever differences existed, rather than underlying biology. While I suspect that this finding is not the last word on the subject, I am grateful to Hornbeck for bringing it to the table for discussion. Notice that it doesn’t suggest that women aren’t less aggressive in the specific context addressed by Harris’ comments where gender identity is out in the open (except for sometimes on the internet), or more importantly, that certain open contexts that select for aggression and against agreeableness might produce fairly large gender predominances. Furthermore Harris’ hypothesis doesn’t rely on the gender difference in aggression being biological as opposed to sociocultural, so while Hornbeck’s point here is interesting and true, it can’t rescue him.

Hornbeck is like many others who called Harris' comments and blog entry sexist in that many of these folks don't really seem to buy into there being any relevant psychological gender differences, so anybody who disagrees with them must be sexist, by definition.

Notice one of the bizarre and unwanted consequences of that position. If the claim of relevant psychological gender differences itself, is sexist, then Drs. Janet Hyde and Yanna Weisberg et al, who concluded in their research that some moderate and even large gender differences do exist, must be accused of sexism, too.

Should people doing science and drawing honest conclusions about data on psychological gender differences have to fear charges of sexism from those who think that such conclusions are unwarranted? Should Therese Huston (cognitive psychologist at Seattle University), Mara Mather (cognitive neuroscientist at University of Southern California), Nicole R. Lighthall (cognitive neuroscientists at Duke University), Stephanie D. Preston (cognitive scientist at University of Michigan), Ruud van den Bos (Neurobiologist at Radbound University in the Netherlands), Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm (University of Vienna) all close shop and jettison these questions, or should their work related to gender differences in decision making under stress be openly available is it was in the NY Times last week?

Shouldn’t we have an open conversation on this subject without having one jumping to conclusions about people’s reasoning, and dropping ugly accusations of sexism at every turn whenever others disagree with one about the state of the evidence? Why not just stick to a conversation about the evidence, without resorting to indirect (aka relational) aggression against individuals?

I’m going to let Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, have the last word on this one:

“The psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. In maintaining our most precious relationships, it is not enough to say and do the right thing. We have to show that our heart is in the right place and that we don't weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. If someone offers to buy your child or your spouse or your vote, the appropriate response is not to think it over or to ask how much. The appropriate response is to refuse even to consider the possibility. Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don't understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen. (The logic of taboo underlies the horrific fascination of plots whose protagonists are agonized by unthinkable thoughts, such as Indecent Proposal and Sophie's Choice.) Sacred and tabooed beliefs also work as membership badges in coalitions. To believe something with a perfect faith, to be incapable of apostasy, is a sign of fidelity to the group and loyalty to the cause. Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong.

At some point in the history of the modern women's movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred. The reasons are understandable: Women really had been held back by bogus claims of essential differences. Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as "not getting it" when it comes to equality between the sexes. The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.”-
Steven Pinker, 2005

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