Share via Email Do men and women speak the same language? Can they ever really communicate?
While our physical differences in size and anatomy are obvious, the question of psychological differences between the genders is a lot more complicated and controversial. There are issues around how to reliably measure the differences. And when psychologists find them, there are usually arguments over whether the causes are innate and biological, or social and cultural.
Are men and women born different or does society shape them that way? These questions are particularly thorny when you consider our differences in personality. Most research suggests that men and women really do differ on some important traits. But are these differences the result of biology or cultural pressures?
And just how meaningful are they in the real world? One possibility is that most differences are tiny in size but that combined they can have important consequences. View image of Credit: Alamy One of the most influential studies in the fieldpublished in by pioneering personality researchers Paul Costa, Robert McCrae and Antonio Terracciano, involved over 23, men and women from 26 cultures filling out personality questionnaires.
Across these diverse cultures, including Hong Kong, USA, India and Russia, women consistently rated themselves as being warmer, friendlier and more anxious and sensitive to their feelings than did the men. The men, meanwhile, consistently rated themselves as being more assertive and open to new ideas.
In the jargon of personality psychology, the women had scored higher on average on Agreeableness and Neuroticism and on one facet of Openness to Experience, while the men scored higher on one facet of Extraversion and a different facet of Openness to Experience.
Similar results came in when a separate research team asked more than 17, people from 55 cultures, to fill out personality questionnaires. Again, women scored themselves higher on Agreeableness and Neuroticism and this time also on Conscientiousness and the warmth and gregariousness facets of Extraversion.
One obvious criticism was that the participants were rating their own personalities. Perhaps the women and men differed simply because they were describing themselves in the way their societies expected them to be. But this seems unlikely because another studyled by McCrae and his collaborators, found broadly similar results from 12, people from 55 diverse cultures even though they were asked to rate the personality of a man or women they knew well, rather than their own personality.
Adding to the picture, other research has shown that the genders begin to differ in personality very early in life. For example, one study published in looked at ratings of the temperament of pairs of twins made when they were three-years-old.
The boys were rated as more active, on average, than the girls, while the girls were rated as more shy and as having more control over their attention and behaviour.
Another study looked at average differences in personality between women and men aged 65 to 98, and just as with research on younger adults, the elderly women tended to score higher on Neuroticism and Agreeableness than the elderly men.
These findings make sense to evolutionary psychologists who say that our psychological traits today reflect the effect of survival demands experienced by our distant ancestors, and further, that these demands were different for men and women.
For example, women with more nurturing personalities would have been more likely to succeed in raising vulnerable offspring, while men with bolder personalities would have been more successful in competing for mates.
In turn, these traits would have been passed down to successive generations. Some scholars and commentators are uncomfortable with such a biological account of human behaviour, however, which they feel underestimates the influence of the social and cultural forces that shape who we are and how we behave.
This seems to run against the idea that our personalities develop from cultural expectations around traditional gender roles. One explanation for this surprise finding is that the innate, biological factors that cause personality differences between men and women are more dominant in cultures where the genders are more equal.
Alamy Another way to look at this issue is to use an implicit measure of personality. This involves using speed of keyboard responses pressing different keyboard keys as fast as possible in response to different words to test how readily people associate words pertaining to themselves with those describing different personality traits.
A research team led by Michelangelo Vianello at the University of Padua in Italy used this approach in with a study involving over 14, people surveyed via the Project Implicit website. Gender differences in personality were three times smaller using the implicit measure as compared with a standard personality questionnaire, suggesting the differences uncovered by standard questionnaires are influenced by conscious biases.
And yet, while diminished, the implicit measure still revealed statistically significant differences in average personality between men and women, especially in relation to women scoring higher on Neuroticism and Agreeableness. In short, this result suggests that gender differences in personality are there at a subconscious level, but studies which relied on self-reporting may have overstated differences in gender, perhaps in part because people wanted to fit in with cultural expectations.
While most large studies have tended to find the most consistent gender differences in the main traits of Neuroticism and Agreeableness, other scholars have pointed out there could be more extensive differences if only one were to look in more detail.
Extraversion, for example, comprises two aspects: The researchers said that these would not have shown up in studies at the level of the Big Five traits, as used in most earlier research.
This is consistent with the size of the gender differences uncovered by McCrae and others in their large cross-cultural studies, which also tended to be quite subtle.
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