The Division of Personality is Limited by the Division of Labor

Here is the abstract to Why can’t a
man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits
across 55 cultures

Previous research suggested that sex differences in personality traits
are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which
women have more opportunities equal with those of men. In this article,
the authors report cross-cultural findings in which this unintuitive
result was replicated across samples from 55 nations (N = 17,637). On
responses to the Big Five Inventory, women reported higher levels of
neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than did
men across most nations. These findings converge with previous studies in
which different Big Five measures and more limited samples of nations
were used. Overall, higher levels of human development–including long
and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic
wealth–were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences
in personality. Changes in men’s personality traits appeared to be the
primary cause of sex difference variation across cultures. It is proposed
that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality
traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally
diverge in developed nations. In less fortunate social and economic
conditions, innate personality differences between men and women may be

Unlike the authors, I don’t find it unintuitive that personality differences between men and women increase in developed economies.  All personality differences increase in developed economies.  If Robin Williams Chris Rock (see comments) were a Bangladeshi rice farmer he might still be funny but he’d also have to be a hard-working, diligent rice farmer and that would push his personality closer to the mean of all rice farmers.  The division of labor both opens up the possibility of becoming who you truly are and it magnifies and extends who you can be.

Hat tip to Robin Hanson.


So maybe a better title is: "The Division of Personality is Limited by the Extent of the Market."

Sounds like it supports Von Humboldt's thesis in The Limits of the State.

Unlike AT, sorry.

"If Robin Williams were a Bangladeshi rice farmer he might still be funny but he'd also have to be a hard-working, diligent rice farmer and that would push his personality closer to the mean of all rice farmers."

Really? So if he were working in a cube in some corporate campus, he'd be more funny? I wasn't aware that 'the mean of all cube workers' level of humor' > 'the mean of all rice farmers' level of humor.'

An interesting counterpoint is this paper:

Cable Television Raises Women's Status in India
Robert Jensen and Emily Oster
"The villages that added cable were associated with improvements in measures of women's autonomy, a reduction in the number of situations in which wife beating was deemed acceptable, and a reduction in the likelihood of wanting the next child to be a boy."

After villages were exposed to western lifestyles, e.g. via soap operas, women were treated more equally.

These soap operas, in particular, generally depict urban environments in which, relative to rural areas, women are more likely to work outside the home, control money and have high levels of education.

They don't measure the same things and aren't necessarily contradictory, but FWIW, the physical safety, freedom, attitudes and economic autonomy measured in the NBER study seem a lot more important than the subtler personality traits in the psychology study.

"If Robin Williams Chris Rock (see comments) were a Bangladeshi rice farmer he might still be funny but he'd also have to be a hard-working, diligent rice farmer and that would push his personality closer to the mean of all rice farmers."
See, I'm not quite sure if one has anything to do with the other. Perhaps in this situation, but is there a big personality difference between, say, a US auto worker and a Bangladeshi rice farmer, that is CAUSED by their occupation differences?

It seems more likely to me that greater wealth=greater diversification in media outlets=greater diversification in media consumption=greater difference in personality. But that's just a winged hypothesis, so who knows?

I think the consulsion makes sense if you believe in Maslow's Hierarchy of

Only after you take care of basic needs can you then address self-esteem needs and then self-actualization needs.

If David Cross (who is
funny) were a Bangladeshi rice farmer, and he was wondering if he could feed himself and his family then he wouldn't have time to ponder things like how morally twisted he was to drink alcohol with gold leaf in it.

Hmm. Greater wealth leads to greater expression of sexual personality traits. One of these is female neuroticism. Thus the richer the society the more female neuroticism we shall see.
Good Grief! Amanda Marcotte is right! It really is capitalism causing anorexia, female body image problems and the rest. Not for the reasons she thinks, to be sure, but it is capitalism that produces the wealth, isn't it?
Better switch to socialism long as we can be certain that it works in reverse as well, falling wealth reducing the number of neurotic women.

SC makes an interesting point: rich countries having a greater separation between the genders' personalities doesn't by itself prove that this is nature shining through.

A way to show this would be to also study the spread of personalities within each gender. Perhaps they already have the data to to so? If this is also wider in rich countries, and I am sure it would be, then it would be hard to claim that the spread between genders is enforced by stronger social pressure in rich countries.

Black vs white is very different, as the degree of mixing will vary so much.

A better link is this one:

SC says:
"What is counterintuitive - and indeed, unscientific - is the researchers’ interpretation of their findings ... This variation would suggest to most social scientists – who focus on observable evidence – that personality traits are socio-culturally determined across the board. They would then look at features of the cultural landscape in different social contexts (including the influence of the mass media, different methods of childrearing, etc.), seeking to determine how different personality traits are encouraged or discouraged amongst men and women."

I fear this is no better than Tyler's explanation by SC's own criteria. The evidence says that there are differences. The evidence in this experiment does not say anything about whether they are culturally determined or born in. Many of folks here seem to think it is clear, and already proven that there are inborn traits. Many Social Scientists seem to start from the position that there are not inborn traits. In neither assumption of inborn-ness nor assumption of socialized features is the assumption "scientific". the assumption is a start point, and different folks are starting from different priors, both sets of whom think are justified elsewhere.

I’ll make this as brief as possible. The PBS piece deals with a single, anecdotal case, and we all know how useful personal testimonials are in making broad claims in science. If this person had emerged as a happy, well-adjusted women, that wouldn’t prove Money’s case, just as his experience doesn’t allow anyone to make general claims about biological differences. It is perfectly reasonable to imagine that many others in that situation had very different experiences. Most important, though, is that this one – again, single case – addresses gender identity, not personality. It says nothing about the five aspects of personality of concern to the study we’re talking about. (And I can’t resist suggesting that his personality, while it may have been unfeminine in Canada, may well have resembled the normal personality of girls in, say, Bangladesh. As the study at hand shows, there is a great deal of variation on this score.)

One of the interviewees makes clear that:

“This established sex difference in the brain is an anatomical difference, and quite frankly no one knows what it means in terms of behavior. It might well have something to do with the different kinds of physiology involved with the production of sperm versus the production of eggs. There's no evidence that it has to do with behavior per se, which doesn't mean to say there might not be some evidence in the future. But at the moment no one really knows what that little group of cells does.†

The companion web site to the story (and especially the parts by Anne Fausto-Sterling), moreover, suggests a very complicated picture, and one that would certainly rule out any a priori assumptions about gender, biology, and behavior.

In any case, Kyle, you do not have to assume that personality differences between men and women are entirely cultural artifacts to recognize the flaw in their interpretation of their findings: they take as axiomatic something which they have offered no valid scientific reason to take as axiomatic. Not only are innate differences assumed, baselessly, but they proclaim the cases in which these differences seem the most pronounced to be “natural,† then seek to explain why these natural differences do not exist elsewhere. And their OWN DATA show broad variation in these personality traits amongst and between men and women. Unless you’re going to make an absurd argument that the nation into which one is born affects one’s biology in such a way as to cause these differences, they have to be caused by some sort of sociocultural differences.

I should note that the irony of this is that people who wanted to show how natural the differences between genders were used to point to gender differences in “primitive† societies, assuming that these existed in something closer to some imagined “state of nature.† (Of course, examples were always carefully chosen: rarely were examples that challenged their stereotypes mentioned.) Now, when faced with data that suggests that gender differences in one area are less pronounced in more “traditional† societies, they turn around and suggest that these do not allow for “natural† differences to be expressed. Oy vay.

I think that the race analogy I made earlier is perfectly valid, but for the fact that, unlike gender, racial constructs have no biological reality.

Really? Racial 'constructs' have no biological reality? Indeed, the average genetic variation between races is much less than the average variation between two individuals of the same race. But white couples don't have white children? Black coulpes don't have black children? No biological reality?

Oh man, I originally read the crossed-out "Robin Williams" as "Robin Hanson" (as that's the Robin you guys are always talking about), that lent some whole new interpretations to the paragraph. (Picture, for example, my mind desperately spinning to find what Robin Hanson and Chris Rock have in common...)

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