The "sex difference factor"?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJan 5, 2012 8:10 PM


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There's a new paper in PLoS ONE, The Distance Between Mars and Venus: Measuring Global Sex Differences in Personality*, which suggests that by measuring variation of single observed personality traits researchers are missing larger underlying patterns of difference. The Distance Between Mars and Venus: Measuring Global Sex Differences in Personality:

In conclusion, we believe we made it clear that the true extent of sex differences in human personality has been consistently underestimated. While our current estimate represents a substantial improvement on the existing literature, we urge researchers to replicate this type of analysis with other datasets and different personality measures. An especially critical task will be to compare self-reported personality with observer ratings and other, more objective evaluation methods. Of course, the methodological guidelines presented in this paper can and should be applied to domains of individual differences other than personality, including vocational interests, cognitive abilities, creativity, and so forth. Moreover, the pattern of global sex differences in these domains may help elucidate the meaning and generality of the broad dimension of individual differences known as “masculinity-femininity”...In this way, it will be possible to build a solid foundation for the scientific study of psychological sex differences and their biological and cultural origins.

I'm curious about the reaction of people in psychology to this result. The reason is that I am generally confused or skeptical about measurements of personality difference. I'm not confused or skeptical of differences in personality between individuals or groups. I agree that these exist. I just don't have a good sense of the informativeness of the measures of difference. People may criticize [strike]psychometrics[/strike] intelligence testing all they want, but at least their methods are relatively clear. From what I can gather the authors discovered that the differences between sexes on personality were much clearer once you looked for the correlation across numerous single measured traits. This strikes me as similar to what you see in population genetics when you move from variation in one gene across populations to many. While a single gene is not very informative in terms of population differences (e.g., the standard assertion that ~15 percent of variation is between races), synthesizing the variation of many genes allows one to easily distinguish populations, because there is such strong discordance in the correlation of differences. An analogy with traits makes understanding this easy. If you were told that population X tended toward black hair, that would not be very informative. Nor if you were told that population X tended toward straight hair. And what if you were told that population X tended toward light skin? All these traits are common across many different populations. But if you told that population X tended toward straight black hair and light skin, the set of populations which intersect at those three traits together in this direction is far smaller than evaluating on a trait-by-trait basis. But in regards to the evolution of sex differences there is something that I feel that I can say here. Humans seem to lay between other ape lineages in terms of physical dimorphism. For example, in size the difference between males and females is not as extreme as gorillas, but not as equitable as among gibbons. These differences are traditionally correlated with social structure. Groillas are highly polygynous, and there is a great deal of male-male competition, therefore driving sexual selection. In contrast, gibbons tend toward monogamy (at least in the ideal, as with "monogamous birds" the reality seems to differ from the ideal). But there is also an evolutionary genetic aspect to sexual dimorphism we must consider: in Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits the authors note that evolution of sex specific traits is not going to occur fast. The reason is simple: aside from the peculiarities on the sex chromosomes males and females are genetically the same. This implies that sex differences on the genetic level may emerge via modulation of gene expression across networks of genes tuned by some "master controllers" associated with differential sex development. All of this added complexity takes time to evolve, with the rough result that sexual differences in trait value take about an order of magnitude longer than other traits to come to the fore. The intuition here is simple: if there is selection for large males, there will be selection for large daughters indirectly. Modifiers which dampen this effect need to emerge, so that sex-specific selection doesn't have the side effect of dragging the other sex along in terms of trait value (this is a concern when you have traits, such as high testosterone, which might increase fitness in males, but reduce it their daughters). Therefore, if there are sex differences in behavioral tendencies which are biologically rooted (I believe there), they will tend to be universal across human societies and have a very deep evolutionary history. So that would be the strategy to understand differences in personality across the sexes. Go beyond W.E.I.R.D. populations, as they did in this study. And look for traits where males and females seem to exhibit consistent differences across these range of social environments. I suspect environment does effect the magnitude of differences, but I would be willing to bet money that some differences are going to persist (e.g., inter-personal violence is an area where males will differ due to size and personality). * I'm really sick of the use of the Mars vs. Venus dichotomy in the scholarship.

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