Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
Brooklyn, New York, United States
June 01
Freelance writer, editor, and first citizen of Judy's World.

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JANUARY 20, 2012 7:13AM

Mars and Venus revisited: How deep do sex differences go?

Rate: 18 Flag

 Men vs. Women

“Vive la différence, the French say, and they seem to know what they're talking about. But when the rest of us describe human beings as being male and female - masculine and feminine - what are we really referring to? For a long time, the matter seemed to be settled. Every college course on gender and Women’s Studies I ever took was premised on Simone de Beauvoir’s mantra from her book The Second Sex (1949) that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (and a man too, for that matter). The notion that perceived sex differences are products of nurture and not nature flew in the face of most common wisdom up to that point, and is still unfamiliar to most people today, at least if we go by the extraordinary success of authors like John Gray and Alan and Barbara Pease with their books on why women “can’t park” and men “can’t talk.”

In the so-called developed countries, however, “gender” – i.e., the general notion that, when it comes to behavioral differences between men and women, sociocultural identity formation trumps biological differences – has become the common currency of academia and politics. Biologists and developmental scientists have been increasingly going the same route ever since the early twentieth century. In 2005, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde summed up much of the research in an article entitled “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis,” in which she stated that

males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables. That is, men and women, as well as boys and girls, are more alike than they are different. In terms of effect sizes, ... most psychological gender differences are in the close-to- zero (d < 0.10) or small (0.11 < d < 0.35) range, a few are in the moderate range (0.36 < d < 0.65), and very few are large (d = 0.66–1.00) or very large (d > 1.00). (…) Extensive evidence from meta-analyses of research on gender differences supports the gender similarities hypothesis. A few notable exceptions are some motor behaviors (e.g., throwing distance) and some aspects of sexuality, which show large gender differences. Aggression shows a gender difference that is moderate in magnitude.

 Men vs. Women

As the new millennium got into swing, it looked as if gender was in, sex was out.

But a new article published in Public Library of Science (PLoS) on January 4, 2012, is once more muddying the waters. In “The Distance Between Mars and Venus: Measuring Global Sex Differences in Personality,” psychologist Marco Del Giudice from the University of Turin, Italy, subjected existing data on male/female differences to fresh and more rigorous analysis. He found that “the idea that there are only minor differences between the personality profiles of males and females should be rejected as based on inadequate methodology.” In fact, he discovered, the personality difference between men and women “turns out to be extremely large by any reasonable criterion.”

Specifically, Dr. Del Giudice found that

Most personality traits have substantial effects on mating and parenting-related behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, relationship stability, and divorce. Promiscuity and the desire for multiple sexual partners are predicted by extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism (especially in women), positive schizotypy, and the ‘‘dark triad’’ traits (i.e., narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism). Negative predictors of promiscuity and short-term mating include agreeableness, conscientiousness, honesty-humility in the HEXACO model, and autistic-like traits. Relationship instability is associated with extraversion, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness. Finally, neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and (to a smaller extent) low agreeableness all contribute to increase the likelihood of divorce. 

He continues:

In addition to their direct influences on mating processes, personality traits correlate with many other sexually selected behaviors, such as status-seeking and risk-taking. Thus, in an evolutionary perspective, personality traits are definitely not neutral with respect to sexual selection. Instead, there are grounds to expect robust and wide-ranging sex differences in this area, resulting in strongly sexually differentiated patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior – as if there were ‘‘two human natures’’, as effectively put by Davies and Shackelford.

 Men vs. Women

Dr. Del Giudice’s research essentially shoots down today’s received wisdom that men and women are more similar than they are different without going on to inform us why, say, women can’t read maps and men can’t ask for directions. But I’m intrigued and can sniff a paradigm shift in the wind. What ramifications do his findings have? And what will happen to the emancipatory notion of gender as opposed to the patriarchal menace of sex? Dr. Del Giudice was kind of enough to take time off from his busy schedule to answer some of my questions:

JM: Dr. Del Giudice, for decades now feminists and gender theorists have been arguing that men and women are basically the same deep down and that whatever differences in their dispositions and behaviors we may perceive are due to socio-political conditioning from earliest childhood and lifelong peer pressure. Are you implying with your work that this perspective is outdated?

MDG: In our PLoS paper we argue that sex differences in personality are much bigger than previously acknowledged. However, our data do not speak to the causes of such differences - indeed, some versions of the social learning theory (such as Eagly and Wood's social roles theory) are quite consistent with large differences in behavior.

Men vs. Women 

If you want a general answer, I do believe that many sex differences have been shaped by evolutionary processes, and that men and women do not have the same psychology. This belief is based on a huge body of theory and data, including many studies of other cultures and species. This, however, does not negate that social learning and cultural practices have a place in the development of sex differences. But even our learning machinery is a product of evolution, and males and females seem to have somewhat different versions of it.

JM: As a scientist, what is your view of such pop-psy best sellers as John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Allan & Barbara Pease's Why Men Want Sex and Women Need Love? Do these books have any scientific basis or do they merely exploit popular stereotypes? Many critics suspect the behaviors described there are self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating (and profit-making) prophecies.

MDG: I must admit I never read any of those books. Striking a balance between rigor and popularization is really hard, and I guess many people are asking for simple, black-or-white generalizations. However, I'm not surprised that these books become popular, because men and women are different in many respects, and they (usually) know. People want to learn how to cope with that, and simply telling them that the differences they see do not exist is not going to work. Then, of course, there are a lot of individual differences within each sex, and this is another important aspect of life. There are many ways of being a men or a woman, and this diversity is also a product of both culture and evolution.

JM: Do you have any concern that your findings could play into the hands of religious fundamentalists and other reactionary forces around the world who have a vested interests in keeping the sexes separate, with men on top and women barefoot and pregnant?

No. [We’ll just have to take his word for that!]

 Men vs. Women

JM: If other researchers choose to build upon your findings, what do you see as the possible consequences, both in terms of what we understand about men and women and also public policy?

MDG: On the scientific side, I hope we will build a more accurate map of the psychological similarities differences between the sexes. However, the descriptive approach we adopted in this study would be sterile without good theories of how and why males and females differ. As for public policy, it is a complex issue. I don't think there should be a one-to-one relation between scientific findings and public policy. However, policies that depend on false premises to work will probably fail, or fail to work as intended. Some policies seem to be based on very strict assumptions - e.g., that sex differences in the relevant domain are exactly zero, or that they can be eliminated by social learning. Those assumptions are unlikely to be true. But I'm really not saying anything new here.

JM: On your website you write: "A common thread underlying much of my current work is the application of life history theory and sexual selection theory to the study of individual and sex differences in attachment, mating, social competition, and personality," which sounds utterly fascinating. Can you give us a preview of what we can expect?

MDG: Thanks for the kind words. I work on sex differences in attachment styles and their development, from childhood to adulthood. Some of my theoretical work concerns the evolution of autistic-like traits - a fascinating dimension of individual differences, which also has sex-related aspects. At the moment, I'm doing a lot of interdisciplinary research on the development of the stress response system, including prenatal stress, and some of my future projects will deal with psychopathology. I keep myself busy!



The illustrations for this article are taken from the website 12 Images to Show You the Subtle Difference Between Men and Women.




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I love this and you write and pur this together w a perfect balance of thoughtfulness and humor. r.
I agree with Mr. Wolfman. My old farm partner and I spoke and giggled for hours.
She went off tho.
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I tried t leave and visit the Va and vowed to not be late`gin. I was sitting on the pot.
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I'll send this to Robert Deluty.
He's not a odd evangelical.
Someone quipped that since humans and chimpanzees share > 98% of their DNA, and since the amount lost in the y chhromosome exceeds 2% human males and chimpanzee males have more in common than they do with their mates. The Chimpanzee genome project, though shows that human and chimp 'y' chromosomes and the MSY (male specific) portion have diverged hugely in the last 6,000,000 years. So, much that it looks like they diverged at 320,000,000 years ago rather than six million. So, there goes that bit of witticism.
Thanks for a funny, yet serious, look at the gender vs. sex, nurture vs. nature question. I generally go with nature, and that's pretty depressing at times. R
Somebody's got way, way too much time on their hands. I'll be glad where we get to the time where we stop pretending not to know what we know.
I've long believed that there are gender differences between male and female that go beyond the obvious lack of similarity in our plumbing and reproductive functions. Trying to predict individual behavior based solely on these differences is largely a fool's errand, however. As a species we are just too diverse on the individual level to do that. But when one starts to deal with larger and larger gr0ups, I think that is where we begin to see those differences more clearly.

This has obvious implications for public policy and everyday life. It is not enough to simply have laws in place respecting gender equality, we need public policy that recognizes the differences. For example, in the field of health research, female biology was long ignored, which is why "Our Bodies Ourselves" is still a hit and is translated into many languages.

I've worked at jobs where men were the majority and I've worked at jobs where women were the majority. I'm not a scientist, but my experience tells me that the dynamics were different, often in ways I did not clearly understand.

I don't know how accurate Marco Del Giudice's research will turn out to be, but he is asking important questions. I don't think either gender essentialism or "the genders are mostly the same" will prove to be an accurate assessment of humanity.
There is one man in Amerika, Mitt Romney, who has artfully blended the traits of both sexes/genders. He would blow your doc's fuses. See my most recent post...winky doo
I love your visual aids.
So after puberty I started to think about shoes? and after he reached puberty he started to think what I would look like in those shoes it makes sense while I think of it. Then the other part is that we definitely think about stuff all the time, but I'll be damned if I know a man that wants to talk about it, or a women who wants to ignore it.
I LOVED those images, they definitely humorously highlight the stereotypical notions of the psychological differences between men and women. I have long known that men and women are not that identical as Pop Cultural Psychologists want(ed) us to believe. I just knew, deep down, they were wrong.

I think it's our differences that actually help to bring us together. We are different, but equal in a complementary way. Those differences can form the glue of a life long bonding that enhances our similarities as a strengthening of compatibility, while those differences increase a pair's chances for successful survival -- with the caveat that there is a cooperative relationship and not a dominating one from either partner.

And, people are just different, too. Sometimes guys act more like the feminine aspects, and sometimes women act in a more masculine manner and that doesn't imply any confusion as to gender or sexual orientation. It's a psychology of the mind that allows for that variance within the population.

This is interesting in oh so many ways. It is my hope that pundits and those with a rather perverse agenda to wind the clock back a few hundred years won't jump all over it and misuse it, misinterpret it and basically destroy any chance we have to learn useful and important tidbits that make our lives richer and not meaner.

Ive been saying this almost since I joined-- feminist theory needs to come to grips with evolutionary psychology and its doing in a kind of "kicking-and-screaming" way so far.....
it is indeed a paradigm shift because we now have very solid scientific research to answer some age-old questions. the answers arent exactly what we would have expected or predicted, but as they say, the truth will set you free.
We are two species, you and I, but, that's fine and OK, both our species, and especially mine, has bred with every other closely related species from Day 1 and our DNA now clearly shows this is how we got here so it must be a hard habit to break. I sure love your species, just the way you are ...
"The truth will set you free."
Let's hope so! I'm still waiting...
Sheesh, I was (so I thought, a few minutes ago) having a kind of hard day so I postponed reading this till I thought I could Stern Myself Up for an Editors Pick on a Controversial Subject ... and what did I find?
A delicious soup of intelligence, serious study and wonderful wit. "Tee hee" and thanks, all of you! ;-)
excellent piece, judy. the older i get and the more experience i have dealing with the way men think and act, especially about marriage and commitment and power, the more i am convinced of the substantial and basic neuro/emotional differences between the genders. and that doesn't impugn or denigrate the ability of women to do well in business (says one who did and is an outspoken feminist).
It doesn't seem to me that there's anything within this study that contradicts Simone de Beauvoir's statement, and Del Giudice recognizes this explicitly: "our data do not speak to the causes of such differences." The origins of the differences might, consistently with these data, be 100% social. So the conventional views of your women's studies courses are safe. I took a women's studies course too, and I don't remember that anyone ever stated that men and women behave the same way now, as adults in society. The two paragraphs from Del Giudice at the top are not from his conclusions, but from his survey of the literature at the beginning of the paper. In the interview, he gives as his personal opinion that "many of these sex differences" arise from evolution--but the large sample size, and the "more rigorous" method (if in fact it is) don't bear on these claims at all.

As for "more different than similar," this statement is made only after a number of other logical moves. Notably, the personality test presupposes that the same dimensions of personality apply to both. That means that we're looking at differences of degree within one single grid. That doesn't seem to contradict women's studies orthodoxy very radically either.
" The notion that perceived sex differences are products of nurture and not nature flew in the face of most common wisdom up to that point, "
old statements basically about culture being crucial were crucial in helping ppl understand the inherent sexism in our culture, which was indeed quite entrenched and invisible. but once that subtle sexism was identified, isolated, and largely removed [imho in key ways], the old books emphasis looks quaint or inaccurate. moreover feminists have made massive gains and now seem to have hit a brick wall in some ways, and the extremists just dont want to admit that maybe its biological, ie a basic force of nature. equality can only be taken so far....
I think that paying attention to the man or woman in front of you and finding out what matters to that person is more important than wondering whether or not they are typical or atypical for their "species". Of course, we develop our stereotypes based on learned, observed, reinforced behaviors that still change somewhat over time and yet estrogen and testosterone have very different affects on the body, from brain to heart to fat to sex, as well as progesterone. Men and women all have varying degrees of them, and we can see that so much personality can be dependent on where those levels are.
Feminism has asked for women to be treated equally as persons, not to be treated the same as men. I have noticed that the interest in equality between the sexes is still a predominantly female concern.
Apparently left out of this entirely is that both men and women undergo very large changes in attitude and understanding during their lives. Those changes need to be taken into consideration if an accurate estimation of gender/sex differences are being studied. We do not spend our entire lives holding the same opinions and behaving in the same manner. We learn, we grow, we change.

In fact the pressure to "keep up" in our modern world forces change upon us at an ever accelerating rate. We change - deep down change - more every year now than our grandparents changed in their entire lifetimes. The divorce rate supports this. Can anyone be surprised that we have a high divorce rate when, a year or two into a marriage, both partners find themselves married to a very different person than the one they exchanged vows with?

Most studies fail to take this rate of change into account. I wonder how accurate they are without this.

♥╚═══╝╚╝╚╝╚═══╩═══╝─╚for the brain eye view of something that is still a big mystery to many.
No, the findings don't contradict de Beauvoir and much of the psychological research, but they do muddy the waters, as I state in the article. Speaking on the record, I basically believe in the gender similarities hypothesis, but I always feel question marks popping up whenever someone declares a debate to be over. Hence the article and interview (and the interesting discussion that has developed above).

That's an excellent point! The emotional demands made on modern-day couples would have been inconceivable in an earlier era, when even the expectation of survival was lower, let alone we had to juggle twin careers and childcare choices. (I wouldn't want to trade with my great-grandmother, though.)

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Yes, genuine male concern about gender equality is still relatively rare in our society. Although I suspect that most men aren't even aware there are still problems, and most TV and other media don't do a very good job of enlightening them.

A great point, thanks. The definition of "equality" will always remain relative.

A true work of art! Thanks.
The concept of "equality" as it relates to gender is a non-starter. No two people are "equal" simply because no two people are identical. Those who continue to seek equality are doomed to disappointment.

What IS possible however, is for us to develop and foster the concept of "equally human". This concept goes much further than that of "women's lib" or "feminism" and covers differences of complexion, age, appearance, background, origin, etc.

It has always seemed to me that "liberating" one segment of our population is an oxymoron. Either we're all liberated, or none of us are. In changing the attitude of men towards women it is necessary that men see a change as being just as "liberating" as women do. It is also just as necessary that women support men's liberation as it is that men support women's liberation. It is appalling to me that many women see men as "the enemy".

The real enemy is an outdated and insupportable concept - not those unfortunate enough to have been indoctrinated with it. I see no advantage to changing from a male dominated society to a female dominated one. The enemy is the concept that any one gender should dominate the other.

Just a thought.......
I want to add the following (sexist) comment. Men generalize more than woman, so you can see comments from women tending to emphasize the individual's differences. It amuses me to see it. I hope perceptive women will see men summing up and generalizing (even missing differences).
You may be on to something. People who generalize save themselves the trouble of dealing with individuals and their individual problems.

Please excuse me for generalizing, though. :-)
We're all prisoners of our social and cultural expectations.
Thank you for a generally humorous but thorough look at the nurture vs. nature, gender vs. sex question. I love the images you've added.
Thanks for the very interesting post. However, I think nature in the more basic scientific research gets a lot more sway in terms of sex differences than the picture that you are necessarily painting here about the accepted scientific role of nurture in sex differences. In animal work sex differences are demonstrated in many cognitive aspects like novelty seeking, mating behavior, risk-taking, etc. These differences are interpreted as natural (and laudable) adaptations to optimize the behavior of the males and females in the species. I wish we as scientists and the public interpreted findings of sex differences not to reflect deficiencies in one sex or the other, but rather as examples of amazing biological adaptation to the different reproductive and social roles of most men and women, in which both are granted exceptional talents and gifts.
Nature or Nurture? I'm afraid human behavior is far too complex to ever permit such a question to be answered satisfactorily. This casual observer, however, believes that whatever the cause, men and women are very, very different. In fact, it's my belief they are different species, species so different, it amazes me they can interbreed.
It ought to be obvious that there are at least a few major innate differences between men and women. Consider the gender of the vast majority of sexual offenders.
If it makes sense that sex differences are genetic that extend beyond the way we look then why is it so difficult to believe that there genetic differences among the races that extend beyond the way we look?
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Wow. "The ‘‘dark triad’’ traits (i.e., narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism)" I thought that narcissism was no longer part of real psychological or psychiatric value. Clearly, there are some differences between men and women, but that they are not easily quantifiable nor absolute in all individuals - and it must be understood that we are all at our core equal. Another interesting post!