What should we make of this bold claim? On his blog, statistician Andrew Gelman says that if you put aside the problems of interpreting the meaning of any observed differences between genders, then “their analysis seems like a good idea to me”. He added: “If you pick the dimensions in which men and women differ the most, you can find a large separation”. Other experts are less convinced. Janet Hyde – known for her work emphasising the similarities between men and women – says that Del Giudice and his colleagues had simply used a methodology designed to maximise differences and that the results were “uninterpretable”.
While the debates about the size and causes of gender differences in personality are likely to rumble on for many more years, it seems reasonable to conclude that for whatever reason, there are at least some differences, however large or modest, in the personality of the average man and woman. But that word “average” is important – whichever study we choose to trust, there is plenty of overlap in personality between the genders. And remember that this is about personality, not all aspects of cognition and behaviour. Indeed, based on her review of gender differences across “across multiple psychological domains” Hyde has argued “that men and women are more similar than different; the distance between them is more like the distance between North Dakota and South Dakota [than the distance between planets]”.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that there is more to this issue than gossip magazine tittle-tattle. There is increasing recognition of the part played by our personality traits in influencing our life choices and mental wellbeing. A better understanding of how men and women differ in personality, and why, could help create equal opportunity for all, as well as more effectively combat mental health problems, many of which affect one gender more than the other – like levels of depression being higher among women, consistent with their scoring higher on average in neuroticism.
As Marco Del Giudice says, “researchers often stress the risk of overestimating gender differences, but the converse is just as true. Pretending that gender differences are smaller than they are deprives people of a very important piece of knowledge about themselves and others.”
“For countless generations men have shaped women, women have shaped men, and here we are – the product of this amazing, complicated history. If we understand this, our judgment becomes broader and less superficial, whether we like the way we are or would like to change it.”
Dr Christian Jarrett edits the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.
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