It’s a frequent complaint that in our politically correct climate, talking about behavioral, psychological, and intellectual differences between men and women has become a taboo, at least in enlightened academic circles (as Larry Summers found out the hard way). I am certainly not even favor of any such taboos. But the truth is that on the popular level — and also among the anti-PC set — talk about sex differences often tends to lapse into unwarranted generalizations and rather egregious stereotyping.
Echidne of the Snakes has two good blogposts about it, analyzing a new Pew Research Center report on gender differences in Internet use and its popular coverage. A Reuters headline said, “Men want facts, women seek relations on Web – survey.” A Chicago Sun-Times story elaborated:
Women like to go online to use e-mail to nurture and build personal relationships, look for health information, get support for health and personal problems, and to pursue religious interests. Meanwhile, men go online to check the weather, read news, get do-it-yourself information, check sports scores, investigate products and download music.
In fact, Echidne points out, according to the study:
More men, 30%, than women, 25%, said the internet helped them a lot to learn more about what was going on, while more women, 56%, than men, 50%, said it helped them connect with people they needed to reach.
There’s a Mars-Venus gap, indeed!
Other Internet behavior differences found in the study:
-seeking health information: women 74%, men 58%
-getting support for health problems: women 66% men 50%
-pursuing religious interests: women 34% men 25%
-checking the weather: women 75% men 82%
-reading the news: women 69% men 75%
-getting DIY information: women 50% men 60%
-checking sports scores: women 27% men 59%
-investigating products: women 75% men 82%
-downloading music: women 20% men 30%
Yes, a lot more men check sports scores. Surprise, surprise. The other gender gaps strike me as … well, not exactly of Grand Canyon magnitude. Or Mars/Venus magnitude.
There’s similar hype from Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial Musings (and, apparently, quite a big of gloating at The Free Republic) over another study telling us that “Boy monkeys like toy cars, and girl monkeys like dolls.” So, what’s this study? Actually, it’s about three years old, and here’s how it was reported in 2002:
It’s commonly believed that boys and girls learn what types of toys they should like based solely on society’s expectations, but psychologist Gerianne Alexander’s work with vervet monkeys is challenging that notion.
Alexander, whose research focuses on sex differences in behavior and the biological factors that influence them, examined the monkeys as they interacted with toys. She and her collaborator, Melissa Hines of the University of London, found that the monkeys’ toy preferences were consistent along gender lines with those of human children. The study was published earlier this year in “Evolution and Human Behavior.”
Though the monkeys had no concept of a “boy” toy and a “girl” toy, they still showed the same gender preferences in playing with the toys, Alexander says. That is, compared to female monkeys, male monkeys spent more time with “boy” toys, and the female monkeys, compared to their male counterparts, spent more time with “girl” toys, she notes.
The full article in Evolution in Human Behavior is not available online (not for free, at least), but I paid for access to the full text, and here’s what I found out.
Of the 88 laboratory-living vervet monkeys in the study, 33 males and 30 females had some contact with one or more of the toys they were offered (playing with a toy or picking it up and examining it).
For the males, about 16% of the contact was with a toy police car. For the females, the corresponding figure was about 8%. Another toy rated as “masculine,” an orange ball, was handled by males about 20% of the time and by females about 10%. (The figures are approximate because the article shows them as bars on a diagram, not as specific numbers. The graph can be found here at Obsidian Wings.)
A red pan, also classified as a “girl toy,” accounted for about 27% of the females’ contact with the toys. And for about 17% of the males’.
The biggest difference was in the handling of a doll. About 22% of the females’ toy contact consisted of picking up, handling, and examining the doll. The corresponding figure for males was about 8%. (There were no significant gender differences in monkey interest in a furry dog toy.) It should be noted that among vervets, adult males do not participate in infant care at all, though juvenile males apparently handle infants; the females’ behavior toward the doll was rather similar of female vervets’ handling of infants.
Let’s say that all these differences are solid and related to gender and biology (though I find it hard to believe that female monkeys would perceive a pan as a “feminine” object — last time I checked, monkeys don’t cook). They still clearly show a great deal of intra-gender variation. So why is it that, if male monkeys play with a toy car 16% of the time and female monkeys 8% of the time, this is translated into “boys love trucks”?
Incidentally, there was no overall difference between male and female monkeys in favoring “object toys” versus “animate toys” (the doll and the dog). So much for the notion that females are person-oriented and males are object-oriented.
More: I looked up the leading study on people-versus-object preferences in human infants, as measured by the amount of time infants spent looking at a human face and a mechanical object. The results: 25% of male infants showed a preference for the face, 43% for the object, and 31.8% showed no marked preference. Among female, 36% preferred the face, 17% preferred the object, and 46% preferred neither. To me, these are fairly modest differences — especially modest against the backdrop of sweeping claims about “men” and “women” as categories. But even those figures don’t tell the whole story. How strong are these preferences? On average, it turns out, the male infants spent 45.6 seconds looking at the face and 51.9 seconds looking at the mechanical object. The female infants spent an average of 49.4 seconds looking at the face, 40.6 seconds looking at the object.
The author of the study, Simon Baron-Cohen, proposes a theory that men are more likely to be “systemizers” and women “empathizers,” though he stresses that there is a great deal of overlap between the two. In an op-ed in the New York Times last August, Baron-Cohen wrote:
Our research team in Cambridge administered questionnaires on which men and women could report their level of interest in these two aspects of the world – one involving systems, the other involving other people’s feelings. Three types of people were revealed through our study: one for whom empathy is stronger than systemizing (Type E brains); another for whom systemizing is stronger than empathy (Type S brains); and a third for whom empathy and systemizing are equally strong (Type B brains). As one might predict, more women (44 percent) have Type E brains than men (17 percent), while more men have Type S brains (54 percent) than women (17 percent).
But how “stronger” is stronger? In fact, on average, men score about 42 and women 47 on the empathy test, while women score about 24 and men about 30 on the systemizing test. Mars and Venus, indeed.