This semester I am teaching Psychology of Women at the University of Bridgeport. This is the second time I have taught this course. It is a fun course to teach because everyone likes it. This week we took up the issue of whether overall women’s personalities are different from men’s. A significant percentage of the class believes that men and women are very different in many domains and that this difference is biologic or genetic. The author of our textbook is a feminist from New York so she tends to down play any gender differences found, and she attributes nearly all gender differences to culture.
To balance the views of the textbook, I look for other articles to share with the class. This week I found a great paper, and coincidentally some interesting statistics were also reported in the news. The paper I found is entitled Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures. It was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The results are shocking and a wake up call.
The authors found that there are significant sex differences in personality in the areas of neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. This means that around the world, women are more anxious/fearful, more agreeable, more conscientious and possess more positive sociability traits than do men. Of course all the sexist people in my class attribute this to an inherent biological difference between the sexes. They also expect me to agree with the biological view. After all I spent five years in a lab at Yale studying the effects of sex steroids on the brain.
In spite of my background I do not accept that these gender differences in personality result from a preprogrammed unfolding of the genetic plan. I believe they are largely culturally determined. My position is supported by the study I am sharing with you. It turns out that gender differences in personality are the LARGEST in Western countries where women have the most opportunity and the greatest equality. Furthermore, gender differences in personality around the world are due to differences in men, not differences in women.
Yes, that means that America and Europe lead the world in producing men who are fearless, disagreeable, lacking in conscientiousness and positive sociality. This is very important to us because these are the very personality traits that are associated with sociopathy (See Are they just evil people?).
The study found that communal, trusting cultures produce men who are more androgynous in their personalities. The men from communal cultures are more fearful, more conscientious, and more prosocial. Fearlessness, is perhaps the most important temperamental trait leading to the development of sociopathy. Furthermore, smoking among women around the world is associated with the largest sex differences in personality. This is interesting because maternal smoking has been linked to sociopathy in offspring (see Maternal smoking linked to sociopathy in Offspring).
So how do we put this all together? I think maleness and the hormone testosterone make boys more sensitive to early environmental experiences. If boys are raised in a loving environment, where social bonds and self-sacrifice for the family are strongly encouraged, then they will grow up more loving and prosocial. If boys are raised to be independent and look out for number one, they are more likely than girls to develop antisocial attitudes. Add to that, the effect environmental toxins have on impulse control and you have an explanation for the high prevalence of sociopathy in our society.
That brings me to the news this week. According to the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project , 2,319,258 adults were held in American prisons or jails at the beginning of 2008. This means that 1 in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars. Since 80 percent of those in prison are sociopaths, nearly 3 percent of the young adult male population is a jailed sociopath. In spite of this the crime rate remains stable due to the many who are not in jail. To read more see MSNBC.com. What percentage of the total young adult male sociopaths are in prison anyway? If you guess 30 percent, that means a sizable percentage of young adult males are sociopathic. We just don’t know.
These statistics are a wake-up call for us all. The practices and beliefs of our society are leading to more sociopaths being formed than would otherwise be formed. We need to rethink our values and our child rearing practices. We need to say strongly that it is very important for boys to grow up possessing the capacity for guilt and empathy. We need to stop believing that dominance and competitiveness are the most important personal qualities to possess. We need to stop conditioning boys to be callous by bombarding them with violent entertainment.
Furthermore, we need to provide our children with a safe clean environment. That starts by eliminating smoking in women of child bearing age and telling teen aged girls they have a responsibility not to start smoking. If teen aged girls start smoking, it is unlikely they will quit in time to prevent exposure of the unborn. In some segments of our society, up to 30 per cent of pregnant women smoke.
Women can sit around complaining that there are not enough “good men” to go around. Or, they can do something about these issues so that future generations will not face these largely preventable social problems.