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Most romantic comedies hinge on the idea that men and women are radically different species, to the point that communication between them is nigh impossible. Whether or not the science of psychology supports this mentality is irrelevant; what matters most is what the characters and the audience believe about the gender divide.
A new study entitled “Mars, Venus, or Earth? Sexism and the Exaggeration of Psychological Gender Differences,” published in the research journal Sex Roles, sought to understand the extent to which people perceive the genders to be different, and how that dissonance correlates with their degree of sexism.
This study is an important step in gender research, because there is a gap between the psychological literature proving the lack of an innate difference between men and women and the beliefs many have regarding those differences.
This would be fine if misplaced beliefs in psychological gender differences had zero real-world impacts, but this study demonstrates that such beliefs are a predictor of sexist attitudes–whether hostile or benevolent.
The project is comprised of three studies. In the first study, researchers surveyed 300 participants via Amazon Mechanical Turk. They were presented with 48 different validated psychological traits such as aggressiveness, risk-seeking, forgiving, etc. and asked to estimate how wide the gender gap was for each trait. They then answered questions meant to measure their levels of both benevolent and hostile sexism (i.e. statements like “men should sacrifice to provide for women” and “women seek power by gaining control over men”) respectively.
The result: There was a correlation for both men and women between hostile and/or benevolent sexist ideals and belief in gender differences. In short, the more sexist they were, the more they believed that men and women occupy different planets.
The participants of the second study read two psychological study abstracts, one that suggested gender differences are expansive (fake) and one that concluded that gender differences are minimal (real). They were then asked to select which one was consistent with their personal beliefs on gender differences. The researchers found the same correlation between sexist beliefs and perceived gender differences. They also found that the more fervent a person’s sexism, the more they exaggerated the “differences” between men and women.
Oddly, in both studies women perceived gender differences more strongly than men. The researchers theorized that this could be due to women’s personal experiences with sexism, making them identify more strongly with their peer group (other women) and see gender as “a more potent predictor of life outcomes” than men.
Study three sought to test the “malleability” of people’s perceptions of difference and its corresponding relationship to sexism. One group read a fake news story announcing proof of significant psychological differences between genders while another group read a story that reported the opposite. Both the big difference group and the small difference group were asked to write about why so much or so little difference exists.
They found that the more participants were “informed” of how little men and women have in common, psychologically-speaking, the more they endorsed hostile and benevolent sexist beliefs. The opposite was also true.
BTRtoday spoke with Ethan Zell, senior author of the study, about their research.
BTRtoday (BTR): What motivated this project?
Ethan Zell (EZ): The vast majority of psychological studies that actually look at real gender differences, not people’s beliefs, have found that those differences tend to be really small. That was pretty surprising to us and to a lot of people.
There are powerful implications there. There have been thousands of thousands of psychological studies comparing males and females; I would say it’s probably the most studied topic in psychology, gender differences. For whatever the reason. Millions of men and women have been tested and generally the result is that differences are really small.
That’s what motivated this project, the question of “do people have an awareness of this?” Do they have an awareness of the fact that psychological gender differences are small?
Maybe in the future we could try to help educate those who don’t have an awareness of that and maybe we could influence that.
BTR: Why did you choose those 48 traits?
EZ: We wanted to look at the broadest possible swath of variables. Some are related to workplace traits, some are academic, and some have nothing to do with that. They were things like ”helpfulness,” “degree to which they compromise,” “degree to which they smile a lot,” “how forgiving they are,” etc. We wanted to look at the general stereotypes. You’ve probably heard about Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
BTR: Oh yes.
EZ: There are some other books like that. That’s ranked something like one of the bestselling nonfiction books of the 20th century. Highly prolific book. Its thesis, similar to a lot of other work, is that men and women are so different that we are from different planets. We’re vastly different. I think that book focuses on communication-style and how that makes it really difficult to understand each other. That perspective suggests that a wide-range of psychological variables should be very different between men and women.
BTR: Were you surprised by your findings?
EZ: We initially thought that people probably would believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. We thought “that book has sold so well,” and if you just look at the popular press coverage of gender, usually media covers studies finding gender differences. They get really excited – “wow, men and women are really difference at this…” That excites people.
Studies that find that men and women are really similar tend to not get published. There was a really great study five or ten years ago where they tested if women talk more than men. They measured the amount of words that people used in a day and they found that there was no difference. Women used almost the exact same number of words as men. So with regards to the stereotype that women are more chatty than men: if you actually look at the data, that isn’t supported.
So we thought something similar would happen. We thought that people would think there’s a huge difference between males and females when the reality is that that is just not true.
We actually found that it’s incredibly varying, almost like political attitudes. We have some people who think “yeah, there are really big differences,” then you have other people who think “no, we’re not that different. We’re actually really similar.” So our study was trying to figure out who these people are.
BTR: What about the last study and the increase in belief of difference being a predictor of higher degrees of sexism?
EZ: It was complicated because we didn’t find a causal effect of manipulating perceived gender differences on sexism. We found an indirect effect. What that suggests is there seems to be this correlation between sexism and perceived gender differences. We’re not really sure which way the causal arrows are pointing. Is it that perceiving gender differences as being big led you to being sexist, or did being sexist lead you to perceive gender differences as being big?
Our studies couldn’t conclusively answer that question. They were suggestive; they provided evidence that reducing the magnitude of perceived gender differences then predicts reduced sexism but we can’t make any causal statements.
BTR: Was the sexism that you found mostly misogyny?
EZ: Yes. There are measures that look at anti-men feelings but we didn’t use them in our study. That would have been smart. We used markers that measure anti-women feelings. So sexism toward women, in favor of men.
It does seem a little weird, because why would women endorse that [sexism against women], but apparently there are women who do endorse these feelings, who do have negative feelings toward women.
BTR: I feel like it’s part of the stereotype of being a “chill girl.” The more you endorse sexism toward women the more cool points you get for not being a feminist.
EZ: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s puzzling even to researchers who study it. But that makes sense.
BTR: What’s the next step in this research?
EZ: There are a couple. One is trying to find ways to reduce sexism and to look further at this idea of whether convincing people that gender differences are small might have a positive effect, if it might have a positive effect on things like career decisions. These beliefs about the size of gender differences are really important because they can affect people’s behavior. So if women think there are huge differences in math performance between genders then they are less likely to pursue a career or take classes in math. The reality is that the gender difference in math is near zero, but a lot of people believe in a huge, innate male advantage.
This can also affect people’s judgements for others. Let’s say you’re an employer: if you have these beliefs that males and females are very different–different kinds of skills–that might change the people you hire for a job.
Another broader avenue I think is interesting to look at this phenomenon in other areas of bias. Not just sexism, but maybe racism or agism. Does a tendency to exaggerate differences between groups correlate with bias? Do racist people exaggerate differences between races?
If we could find this in other domains it might suggest that it’s a more general phenomenon, that people who have prejudice feelings tend to exaggerate differences between groups.