Putting Sex Differences in Context

6 June 2013 by Kris Hardies, posted in Uncategorized

The plethora of psychological research on sex differences has relied heavily on the study of (Western, and more specifically American) undergraduates (majoring in psychology). In an important recent review, Henrich et al. (2010) convincingly cautioned against the overgeneralization of findings from particular human populations such as psychology majors or other WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) participants. While psychological theories are assumed to be universal, the vast majority of psychological research draws upon the study of (Western) undergraduates. At this point, very few studies have explicitly contrasted whether undergraduates differ in various psychological measures from those who are not and there seems to be 'no strong ground to make a priori claims to the "fundamentalness" of a given psychological process' (Henrich et al., 2010, p. 37). Taking undergraduates as behavioral representatives of the human population is not good science. They may in fact be one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about human beings (Henrich et al., 2010).

OVERSEXED STUDENTS

Anthropological evidence casts indeed doubt about the universality of sex-linked traits (e.g., Costa et al., 2001; Wood and Eagly, 2002). Moreover, cross-cultural evidence indicates that precisely in Western countries psychological sex differences are most pronounced (e.g., Costa et al., 2001). As I already explained in my earlier blog post on the nature-nurture dichotomy, different environments can change the shape of sex differences, reduce their size, or even reverse their direction (Jordan-Young, 2010, pp. 269–291). In fact, the importance of context in creating, erasing, or even reversing (psychological) sex differences has been emphasized by gender researchers for a long time.
The statement that sex differences are context-dependent and malleable refers in fact to three interrelated but distinct observations. First, when concepts of femininity and masculinity are used to refer to differences between the sexes it is wrongly assumed that they are mutually exclusive categories, whereas in reality there is a great degree of overlap—differences among men and among women are greater than those between men and women (e.g., Hyde, 2005, 2007). And as the cross-cultural study of Wood and Eagly (2002, p. 722) showed, 'the behavior of men and women is sufficiently malleable that individuals of both sexes are capable of effectively carrying out organizational roles at all levels.' Second, there is in fact no such thing as femininity or masculinity in the singular, they exist in multiple forms; that is, there are femininities and masculinities. Men and women do not act like we think men and women do no matter where they are; that is, the meaning of gender varies across time and places. Third, it points to the fact that gendered behaviors should be treated as socially induced rather than as personality constellations; that is, instead of fixed, variable according to the situation.
To this last point, I will come back on a next occasion.

References
  • Costa, Paul T. Jr., Antonio Terracciano and Robert R. McCrae (2001) Gender Differences in Personality Traits Across Cultures: Robust and Surprising Findings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (2): 322–331.
  • Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan (2010) The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2–3): 61–135.
  • Hyde, Janet Shibley (2005) The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60 (6): 581–592.
  • Hyde, Janet Shibley (2007) New Directions in the Study of Gender Similarities and Differences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (5): 259–263.
  • Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. (2010) Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
  • Wood, Wendy and Alice H. Eagly (2002) A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Behavior of Women and Men: Implications for the Origins of Sex Differences. Psychological Bulletin, 128 (5): 699–727.

2 Responses to “Putting Sex Differences in Context”

  1. SciFan Reply | Permalink

    As someone who loves both science and history, I have to say that the compartmentalization of academia may have a lot to do with the overreaching assumptions and overgeneralization in general. History, anthropology, and science scholars stay in their incestuously tiny boxes, when a general awareness of the state of the other fields might help each stay more objective and honest. To name just one well-studied historical example, which could have informed research with WEIRD undergrads: premodern Japan, which had multiple, age-and-class-structured, genders within the male sex.
    Here's a great blog post that provides a good overview:
    http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2010/08/1000-years-of-pretty-boys/
    Despite the "hyper-specialization" of our culture, as Gender is not Sex(y) has noted, cases like this make a good argument for cross-training intellectuals on other fields. Get those drama majors into physics classes, and the organic chemistry strudents into literature courses! Art needs science, and science needs art.

  2. Kris Hardies Reply | Permalink

    Hi SciFan,

    Thanks for your comment and the interesting link! I know a little bit about gender and Japanese society, but this link is excellent!

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