Monday, 25 March 2013

Do men have more varied personalities than women?

A huge study involving over 12,000 participants across 51 cultures from Argentina to Uganda has concluded that men tend to have more varied personalities than women. Peter Borkenau, his co-authors and a small army of international research assistants recruited 12,156 college students (52% were female) to fill out a detailed personality questionnaire about "someone they knew well" - either a person younger or older than forty years.

Averaged across all 51 cultures, men's personalities showed more variation for four of the Big Five traits: extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The exception was neuroticism, which tended to vary more widely in women.

Greater variability in male personalities was not observed in all cultures. In fifteen countries, including Japan and Peru, the pattern was reversed. Across both sexes, personality showed more variation in countries that were more prosperous and had better education systems. Another finding was that female raters showed more variability in the personality ratings they gave, be that for a man or woman. Borkenau and his colleagues said this could explain why past research using self-report questionnaires (where people rate their own personality) has not shown men to have more varied personalities.

The researchers were agnostic as regards the reason why men's personalties show more variability on most dimensions. They said there could be genetic reasons, with traits linked to genes on the X-chromosome in women being averaged across the genetic variants found on each of a woman's two X-chromosomes, thus reducing the likelihood of extreme traits (men have just one X-chromosome, precluding this averaging process).

Social factors are also likely at play, as evidenced by cross-cultural differences in the link between sex and personality variability, although how these manifest is far from straightforward. A key finding was that men's personalities were even more varied than women's in cultures that are more developed, gender-egalitarian and individualistic - "high individualism may facilitate expressions of personality dispositions among men more than among women," Borkenau and his colleagues said. Perhaps, they surmised, this is because in such cultures men still spend more time than women in work environments, which could conceivably offer more freedom for variation in self-expression.

Whether the reasons are biological or social, Borkenau's team think that sex differences in personality variability probably kick in some time during puberty. They say this based on the fact that a study of children aged 3 to 13, published in 2006, did not find greater variability in the temperament of boys.

Conducting cross-cultural research of this kind is fraught with difficulty because of logistics and translation issues. Realising this, the researchers included measures of data quality, such as missing answers, and they factored this into their analysis. There was evidence that data quality influenced their results, but their main findings held even when controlling for this. Another issue is that men and women's average personality scores differ, with women tending to have higher mean scores. However, the researchers don't think that explains the greater variability in men's personalities - for instance, for several personality facets, men were over-represented in both the high and low extremes.

As with any personality research that relies on questionnaires rather than actual behavioural observations, it pays to interpret the findings of this new study with extreme caution. That male and female students tended to rate men's personalities with more variability might say more about how men are perceived, than about how they actually are. That said, if personality really is more varied in men than women (in most cultures), it joins a list of other characteristics that past research has identified as being more varied in men, including cognitive ability, height and sprint speed.


Borkenau, P., McCrae, R., and Terracciano, A. (2013). Do men vary more than women in personality? A study in 51 cultures Journal of Research in Personality, 47 (2), 135-144 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2012.12.001

--Further reading--
Interview with Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender, in The Psychologist magazine.
Two Myths and Three Facts About the Differences in Men and Women's Brains

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

I feel so disinterested to even look at this paper. You say at the end that the study "might say more about how men are perceived, than about how they actually are" but surely the study can ONLY report that it's about this as it's a questionnaire of people's judgements about other people. Before even getting into more interesting questions about personality and social constructions etc, this is basically reporting findings about something that it's not actually measuring so it's flawed from the outset. A paper about whether men and women PERCEIVE personality differences between men and women may be something more that they can try to report on?

Christian Jarrett said...

You're right, they're working on the assumption that the observer ratings of personality are connected in some meaningful way with the targets' actual personalities. This is not entirely unreasonable. In fact, there's some evidence that observer ratings are more valid than self-report. e.g. I think it's very important to bear in mind the massive subjective component to the study, but I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss the results as meaningless. For a start, as you hint at, personality as a concept is in large part socially constructed. If everybody perceives you to be introverted, in what sense is it meaningful to say that, in fact, you are an extravert? The discussion can get messy fast - what should be used as the objective marker of personality - how a person feels about themselves, how they actually behave? That latter sounds promising, but then you find that people's behaviour varies with the situation. And so on. One further thought - the notion that men vary more than women in personality isn't necessarily a good thing. In their intro, the researchers link this variability with the fact that many more men than women are in prison, possibly because there are more men, than women, who show extreme aggression, impulsivity etc.

Jessica Kelly said...

If they had also checked to see which of those societies were more patriarchal or which participants had more misogynistic attitudes, then they could have checked if this correlated with higher levels of percieved personality homogeneity in women.

Christian Jarrett said...

hi Jessica - they did look at this (in terms of gender equality). Quoting from the paper: "sex differences in variability in personality were more pronounced in the more developed, more gender-egalitarian, and more individualistic societies". I'll add something to this effect into my report.

Nora Miller said...

I agree with the other commentors. The issue of the connection between rating and fact seems to me less about whether such reports can be accurate, and more about whether, overall, our cultural judgments of personality have anything to do with actual personality variability. In many cultures (most? all?) women are not considered as equally competent or interesting as men, and men's actions are used as the standard for "adult" behavior, while women's activities are considered less important and thus not worth mentioning.

We also know that women in many cultures tend to acquire a greater facility with language and social observation (out of necessity in most cases), so it makes sense that their descriptions and evaluations of people might be more detailed, leading to the *perception* that the person they are describing is more complex. For example, if men only described other men, and women only described other women, or vice versa, you might get a quite different result.

I cannot access the full paper, but I note that in the "Highlights" section, the authors state that "Informant reports of personality varied more for male than for female targets." and "Descriptions by female informants varied more than descriptions by male informants." Neither of these points justify the conclusion that men have more complex personalities, and no other highlight provides such a justification either. In fact, if you consider the ability to observe and identify the traits of others as part of a complex personality, you might conclude from this that women are more complex.

Overall, this seems like a study with a questionable design reporting results that have little to do with the data actually collected.

Christian Jarrett said...

hi Nora - a few things to consider: The idea that men have more varied personalities didn't lie in the beliefs of any individual raters. Rather, it's the case that the ratings received by men across many raters tended to vary more widely. It's hard to see how straight-forward gender stereotypes could lead to this pattern of results. In a similar vein, it's hard to explain the finding in terms of straight-forward derogatory beliefs about women ... In cultures where women's personalities received less varied personality ratings, women tended, on average, to be rated more highly than men on most measures, including in openness to experience, conscientiousness and agreeableness. Finally, in cultures with more gender equality, the greater variability in men's vs. women's personalities was larger.

Standing Deer and Marti White Deer Song said...

What is the variability we are talking about? To simply state that one gender has more personality variability than another says nothing unless you know what is being measured. This may have been included in the study but not in the article.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

Not that surprising since men are very overrepresented in personality disorders, which in spite of the name is really just extreme personalities.

The most likely explanation is probably the evolutionary, that women's reproductive success has been tied to having children while that of men has been more varied.

Standing Deer: It's the Big Five. Says so at the beginning of the article

Anonymous said...

The difference in the brain might also play a key role in the personality variance between the male and female. In general the male brain is more asymmetrical and functions are more lateralized than in the female brain. The male and female brains use different areas of the brain to solve the same problem. This might also be a factor in personalities. If the two brains function differently then the outcome of their personality would be dissimilar.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog. .

Mark Duin said...

Wow, I didn't know that. Personality is all about how people see things and feel them. It can be changed through proper motivation and guidance,

Mark Duin
Motivational Speaker

Anwar Fazil said...

Mind makes personality attractive.

Anonymous said...

I think this blogged missed alot of components with the research. There are more men than women and trying to determine personalities will be hard. I say that because you would have to know if the person is being serious or if they are lying or not on these personality tests. One of the things they didnt say was what do these personality tests consist.

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