Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sex differences and variation in personality   posted by Razib @ 5/27/2009 05:21:00 PM

Look before you leap: Are women pre-disposed to be more risk averse than male adventurers?:
"It's not at all that women are risk averse," says Jody Radtke, program director for the Women's Wilderness Institute in Boulder, Colorado. When men are confronted with challenging situations, they typically produce adrenaline, which is what causes them to run around, hollering like frat boys at a kegger. An adrenaline rush is a good feeling, but when confronted with the same situation, women produce a different chemical, called acetylcholine.

"Pretty much what (acetylcholine) does is it makes you want to vomit," says Jody.

Because women don't have the same positive chemical reward, they tend to be less pumped about confronting stressful situations. This leads them to rely on decision-making. Essentially, they want the whole picture before they go diving in.

Research, Jody says, shows women have more cross-networking between the two hemispheres of the brain, which subconsciously allows them to evaluate different sensory cues, facts and emotions when making decisions. The cause of this difference probably lies somewhere in the debate of nature versus nurture and the history of evolution.

Marvin Zuckerman, professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, has studied risk for decades. He found men are typically more likely to take risks when seeking novel or exciting sensations, and that comes from both genetics and environment.

"What's important seems to be the environment that isn't shared by siblings in the same family," he says.

The above was originally published by Women's Adventure Magazine. The last reference is to the repeated finding that non-shared environment matters a great deal but isn't well accounted for. Obviously both men and women vary in terms of psychological attributes, and there have been plenty of attempts to adduce the variation to different quantities of neurochemicals (the "chemical soup" model is easy to translate into prose).

The content of the piece isn't too surprising, you see it all the time. Suggesting innate differences between men and women is totally acceptable so long as it is perceived to be neutral, or, better yet, casts women in a positive light. Michael Lewis' recent article on the Icelandic financial turmoil hints to sex differences and male psychology as a root problem. He presented a rather conventional stereotype of men as financial cowboys willing to take outsized risks for reward, while women were risk averse socialists. During the run up to the Iraq War and afterward I recall many people, mostly but not always women, calling into Leftish radio shows promoting a sex determinist theory that war was the result of the male nature, and the fact that men are head of states of most nations was the ultimate problem (this argument crops up in science fiction as well).

The interesting point to me is the sort of articles which highlight "different ways of thinking" between the sexes and how they might be rooted in biological differences have implications which point in different directions in terms of positive or negative valuation depending on your perspective and circumstance. As a specific example, the risk taking predispositions of many males can be seen to be folly and lack of prudence, but, risk often entails both an upside and a downside. Decisions which may seem foolish and wrongheaded viewed through a conventional mainstream lens are often lauded in hindsight as visionary. Unfortunately the nature of uncertainty is such that one has little idea which risks will pay off and which will simply extract a downside cost. It is likely that human societies dominated by those who are only risk averse, or those who are only risk accepting, would not be those which we would truly wish to live in. Variation in human personalities is probably beneficial in an aggregate sense when it comes to human progress. There are downsides risks to both the risk averse and risk accepting strategy, so it is probably best to have some of both. In an economic scenario what I'm talking about is straightforward; consider two individuals with degrees in computer science, one who goes to work for IBM and another who founds a start-up. You wouldn't want everyone to aspire to become a corporate employee, where would the innovation which drives productivity growth come from? On the other hand, there are only so many start-ups which succeed and there is a need for individuals who work in less sexy sectors who service older established technologies which are at the heart of the current economy. In other words, you want to be able to squeeze more juice from the oranges you have, as well be funding research which might result in the discovery of jucier varietals.

Addendum: Obviously what I'm saying here isn't too novel. It's rooted in human nature itself: our minds are cobbled together from disparate competencies and subfunctions, and our unitary consciousness is a delusion very successfully promoted by the prefrontal cortex. But even when it comes to concepts and assumptions which are the purview of the prefontal cortex its priority isn't usually to keep its story straight. Rather it seem geared toward generative ad hoc narratives which are only proximately consistent. Yes it can engage in rationality, but most of the time its forte is rationalization. And why not? Rationalizing the contradictory feels good! It was almost certainly highly adaptive in the past, and likely is today, in terms of keeping everyone in the group on the same page.

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