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“Psychologically, men and women are almost a different species”

Friday, January 20, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Someone should give researchers a list of what sorts of things not to say when describing their research. Whether it’s “this may help explain everything from unrequited love to the uprisings of the Arab Spring!” or “men and women are almost a different species”–it’s just unwise. You can be proud of your research without absurd hyperbole. There’s always someone out there ready to burst your bubble.

In this instance, we have Europeans stepping into the spotlight with a study of the personality differences between men and women using 20 year old data. You likely know that most recent studies show small differences between the genders. Previous studies, according to these researchers, were flawed by weak measures and poor design. So, the European researchers (from Italy and the UK) used a large US sample of 10,261 people who had taken the 16PF Personality Questionnaire back in 1993, during the standardization research for the test.

The researchers found only a 10% overlap in the responses of the males and females comprising the standardization group. They interpret the findings as showing very large and very significant gender differences that have been overlooked in the past. They published their article on the PLoS ONE website. That is when their readers began to respond. Loudly.

Some agreed.

Del Giudice, Booth, and Irwing’s title employs the much-used “Mars and Venus” metaphor, suggesting a seemingly astronomical separation between the sexes. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, reflecting a kind of poetic license. Hyde prefers to speak of the distance between North Dakota and South Dakota.” 

It is surprising that this paper is so controversial. I thought that it was obvious that men and women have different personalities, and I had assumed that psychometric testing had established this decades ago.” 

Others did not.

I don’t have a lot of patience for this sort of boys-do-this, girls-do-that flavor of schoolyard evolutionary biology. In this particular case, any observed differences between men and women can be explained in any number of ways so I see the connection to evolution as being pretty weak.” 

“Giudice et al’s study is already getting a lot of attention, and its title, “The Distance Between Mars and Venus: Measuring Global Sex Differences in Personality,” suggests that it’s tailor-made for the popular press. Many will probably claim it proves once and for all that men and women are inherently different, and those who ascribe to this view will probably be citing it for a long time to come. When they do, remember to take it with a grain of salt.”  

So I would say that these data show that, while men and women may be distinguishable in personality, they could still be similar. This is something of a semantic point but not “merely” semantic: it changes the interpretation of the numbers.”

Gender differences are well-recognized by all of us who are male or female. We know it when we see it and we “see it” all the time. Or so we think. But our pretrial research rarely finds differences between the genders that we can rely upon. Obviously, we are not doing research on 10,000 people (and not on anyone from 1993) but we see many more similarities than differences. Perhaps as some commenters opine, this is about something other than gender.

The lesson is to not trumpet your atypical findings as the whole truth. There’s plenty of truth to go around. And plenty of ways to misconstrue your findings.

Del Giudice M, Booth T, & Irwing P (2012). The distance between Mars and venus: measuring global sex differences in personality. PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22238596


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