I’m quite a fan of the NYT’s John Tierney, and he has another interesting column today exploring personality differences between men and women. On personality tests, Tierney writes, “women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat. Clear differences appear in early childhood and never disappear.”
Not really a surprise — but the big question is, are these differences socialized into us, or biological? Fascinatingly, in more traditional cultures like India and Botswana, sex differences are less pronounced than more developed ones such as the Netherlands or the United States.
Tierney quotes David P. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, as saying that life’s hardships in poorer countries may mask sex differences.
“Humanity’s jaunt into monotheism, agriculturally based economies and the monopolization of power and resources by a few men was ‘unnatural’ in many ways,” Dr. Schmitt told Tierney. “In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots. That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men’s, and to a lesser extent women’s, more ‘natural’ personality traits to emerge.”
Here’s where it gets even more interesting, at least to me as a runner. To buttress this claim, Tierney examines competitive running:
Competitive running makes a good case study because, to mix athletic metaphors, it has offered a level playing field to women the past two decades in the United States. Similar numbers of males and females run on high school and college teams and in road races. Female runners have been competing for equal shares of prize money and receiving nearly 50 percent more scholarship aid from Division I colleges than their male counterparts, according to the N.C.A.A.
But these social changes have not shrunk a gender gap among runners analyzed by Robert Deaner, a psychologist at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, who classifies runners as relatively fast if they keep close to the pace of the world’s best runners of their own sex. When Dr. Deaner looks at, say, the top 40 finishers of each sex in a race, he typically finds two to four times as many relatively fast male runners as relatively fast female runners.
This large gender gap has persisted for two decades in all kinds of races — high school and college meets, elite and nonelite road races — and it jibes with other studies reporting that male runners train harder and are more motivated by competition, Dr. Deaner says. This enduring “sex difference in competitiveness,” he concludes, “must be considered a genuine failure for the sociocultural conditions hypothesis” that the personality gap will shrink as new roles open for women.
If he and Dr. Schmitt are right, then men and women shouldn’t expect to understand each other much better anytime soon. ….