“Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” This book was written the year I graduated from high school and has since become the axiom of male/female relationships, at least as discussed in popular culture. And while “the book” may have given language constructs to an idea, the concept itself is far from new or unusual: throughout psychological and sociological studies, the duality of male/female emotional and psychological profiles persists.
The idea makes a lot of sense. Rarely in human psychology or physiology is a distinction clearer: you either have XX or XY for sex chromosomes; you are either female or male, respectively. Your sexual identity forged on a chromosomal level, it seems entirely natural to assume that distinct differences would exist between you and your genital opposite.
But assumptions are just that: assumptions. And they have no place in science. Two University of Rochester psychologists, Harry Reis and Bobbi Carothers, recently conducted a study to find out whether the axiomatic differences between men and women were really as distinct as many have presumed in the past. And it turns out that, based on their analysis of 13 past studies, most of the differences we assume exist are just figments of our imagination. And of course, of the popular literature economy.
At its core, the study hinges on a very old and well-worn debate over classifying psychological traits.
The Taxon-Dimensional Debate
Here is a question for you: do chihuahua and great danes belong in different groups? Are they distinct categories of dogs? Or is what separates them really just a matter of degrees?
Consider the question. On the one hand, one might easily say that chihuahua and great danes, being of different breeds, are very clearly two separate things. They don’t even look that much alike.
But when you get down to the things that make them different, it becomes a question of individual characteristics. They’re both dogs, one is simply larger than the other. One may have a different coat color, though both breeds have very similar choices: brindle, dappled, sable and so forth. And apart from variations that make them look different, there is really very little genetic difference between different dog breeds. A mere seven markers, to be exact.
The computer programmers and developers reading this article will instantly identify the dog breed analogy. It is a standard thought experiment for explaining a thing called Object Oriented Programming, which relies heavily on definition and categorization. But it also gets at the core of a problem of classification, generally, and psychological classification specifically.
Because when we separate things into different categories, we are creating a taxonomy. A taxonomy is a classification about whose members we can infer a lot of details. For example, we can infer a lot about an animal’s behavior, diet and physiology if we know that it belongs to the taxonomy of “dog.”
Breeds don’t quite work as taxonomies. Breeds are really more a reflection of specific traits common to all dogs, accentuated in ways humans seem to dig. Or you might say, what separates one breed from another are the dimensions of their traits. Greater or lesser height and width, more or less chest depth, different fur colors and lengths.
Many other factors go into determining breed, but since dogs of different breeds can reproduce, you can clearly see in mutts the dimensionality of breed. Your dog may look like a border collie, but have shorter hair and a bigger chest, like a rottweiler. Or it may have a head shaped like a beagle, but the body shape of a labrador. And of course: labrador. Those amorous little buggers are in absolutely everything.
Another way to think of dimension is like a radio equalizer. What makes the “rock” preset different from the “classical” preset isn’t a radical departure of type, it’s just a question of minor adjustments to a few select values.
And in psychology, determining whether behavior is taxonomic – whether different behaviors define or are defined by larger classifications – or dimensional is critical to understanding how to approach the behavior.
Venus, Mars and Soforth
Back to the original question of male and female behavior, does behavior get defined by the obvious gender-based taxonomy? Or, like hair or eye color, is it simply a question of dimensional difference?
To answer this question, the two researchers reanalysed 13 previous studies which had shown a wide divergence between the sexes: that is, 13 studies which reinforced the Venus/Mars dichotomy. Using a new set of algorithms to analyze the data, they first focused on things such as pastimes that rely heavily on physical strength, which would naturally lead to a male/female preference. Having found that their algorithms worked to spot the taxonomic biases, they then turned their attention to personality traits which don’t have physical biases.
The results were more than consistent. Even in the case of what has been considered the “big five” determining characteristics of men and women – extroversion, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and conscientiousness – the new algorithm yielded nothing to suggest that a man might be more inclined than a woman in any category:
Although gender differences on average are not under dispute, the idea of consistently and inflexibly gender-typed individuals is. That is, there are not two distinct genders, but instead there are linear gradations of variables associated with sex, such as masculinity or intimacy, all of which are continuous (like most social, psychological, and individual difference variables).
What does this mean? It means that, while certainly we can see lots of cultural biases for men and women – biases that are mirrored in our behavior – nothing about traditional roles or values, nor our behavior, are immutably linked. Whereas a taxonomical understanding of men and woman would have it that we can presume a man will be good at math and a woman will want to have children, the dimensional model says the contrapositive man who wants children and woman who excels in math are both valid and predictable members of our society.
All of these observations may seem obvious to many of us. But again: obvious is axiom and axiom is useless to science. And this new research completely changes the way many of our current debates and political wranglings are cast. There is no psychological evidence, for example, to support the Family and Medical Leave Act excluding fathers from the role “traditionally” played by women: men can be care-takers and are deserving of as much paternal leave as women are entitled to maternal leave. There is no psychological evidence to support women being excluded from combat roles in the military, nor any other profession. The list of commonly-held biases between sexes runs an arm’s length, and they are all inherently flawed.
But let me end with a few thoughts from Dr. Reis, reflecting on the wider meaning for the next generation and how we treat them: