Tuesday, September 09, 2008

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.”


chicago pop said...

Yes! It always makes me happy to learn of anything that pisses of evolutionary psychologists. Thank you for this.

The personality difference thing would actually jive with the old sociology of Durkheim; modern industrial society drives specialization and differentiation in the economy and social organization, which provides a platform for diversification of individual personality, as well as between genders. Even if certain gender differences dissolved, there could be larger differences between individuals apart from gender.

I would also think it's impossible to approach this problem apart from class; any suspected uniformity of traits across genders in the west would have much to do, I would guess, with the erosion of class hierarchies. Historically, differences between classes have been greater than differences between individuals. The reverse may now be true.

Integral Dad said...

If the study had looked to discover role differences between the sexes in these various societies it would have come to the conclusion that social anthropologist have known for quite some time. The transition from agrarian to horticultural work demanded differentiation in roles to promote healthy fertility rates. But since the study chose to discover “personality differences” then I can possibly explain why it concluded that there are greater differences in personalities between men and women in modern culture, than say its agrarian predecessor. And I would also contend that this is actually a good thing. Radical feminist, as opposed to liberal feminist (who don’t want to acknowledge any differences between the sexes), have agreed that there are fundamental differences between men and women. What radical feminist (radical is not a pejorative term here) want to address is the tradition roles that women have been confined to. In the modern era women are no longer bound to the limits of their biology. With the emergence of non-physical related work on a massive scale, women are rightly finding their equal place in the workplace since women are no doubt equal to men in matters of the mind. However, this emergent culture was not possible prior to fundamental shift in consciousness and evolution. The emergence of modern culture dating back to the Enlightenment was directly related to an emergence in the evolution of consciousness and a change from a role based identity to an individual based one. The ego/Self emerging from its slumber to greater levels of its own awareness. And as this Self comes to greater awareness, its ego becomes differentiated from its environment. It begins to ask questions that challenge conventional roles that it finds itself surrounded by. And this was only now possible with the Industrialization of labor. And this is a good thing, not a bad one. This study’s conclusions, I am afraid, suggest boarding the Regress Express, as Ken Wilber noticed of many Romantic philosophies. We are just on the brink of the next chapter in this post-modern world. And no doubt, it is going to be more challenging than ever before. But fortunately, men and women’s hope for equality lie in our collective future, not some mythic past.

Integral Dad said...

As a side note, I imagine there is also greater personality differences within the genders in modern society. I am not sure if the study even considered this point. Perhaps it is not a gender issue at all. As "chicago pop" said, modern society provides a platform for diversification of personality. And this applies to all individuals, male, female, and transgender.