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Science determines personality

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Sometimes the results of allegedly scientific studies end up sounding about as valid and relevant as web-based personality quizzes.

For example, Ethan points to a CNN article explaining that "sleeping position reveals personality."

Meanwhile, according to the BBC, "women may be less prone to 'geekiness' because of their genes"; a British study suggests that "genes on the X chromosome [may be] important for the development of social skills." The researcher attempts to explain this with one of those sociobiological post hoc rationalizations that so infuriate me:

It makes sense for women, who have to give birth, to have evolved so that the development of their social aptitude is well protected from accidents of inheritance or environment.

Their survival, and that of their babies, is particularly dependent on reading social situations accurately.

Perhaps I'm overreacting to this particular comment because the general class of this type of comments annoys me so much, but grr.

The study's actual data does sound interesting, though:

Many women with Turner's Syndrome ["a female genetic condition caused by a missing or defective X-chromosome"] have difficulties in social interactions, and find it hard to read body language.

And they're tying that to the fact that "[a]utism and autism-like conditions such as Asperger's syndrome are far more prevalent in men than women but it is not clear why."

The article does, at the end, quote David Potter of the National Autistic Society as noting that although the connection seems plausible, "it's not going to explain all cases of autism."

I certainly think it's interesting to note that there are more men than women who are really bad at social cognition; I just wish it could be reported in a way that doesn't reinforce the standard essentialist stereotypes and then try to explain them as foreordained outcomes of evolution.

3 Comments

If the results had been the other way around, and there were lots of genes for social skills on the Y chromosome, we'd surely be hearing that suave, socially-skilled men are better able to charm women into sleeping with them, and thus have improved chances of passing on their genes.

Also, as far as I can tell, the only "social skill" measured in the study described was ability to determine the direction of gaze of a face. While this has obvious social application, I'm not sure that it really counts as a "social skill."


Re your first point: yes, exactly! The cool thing about sociobiology is that it invariably proves that a given researcher's beliefs about human nature are true, and furthermore that human nature is inevitably that way because the god Evolution made it so. I have a theory that it's possible to justify any belief about human nature using sociobiological arguments.

Second point: good point. I had been assuming that there was more to the study than that, but now that I look again, the article doesn't actually say there was. I assumed the statement "Many women with Turner's Syndrome have difficulties in social interactions, and find it hard to read body language" was something widely considered to be true, and backed up by previous research, but it may well have just been the article's author drawing conclusions from a very minimal gaze-perception study. Not sure.

The Turner Syndrome Society FAQ doesn't provide much more relevant info. (Some sites call it Turner Syndrome, others Turner's Syndrome.) It does say "There may be some differences in learning style that make verbal learning come more easily and math or spatial problems more difficult. Despite these challenges, women with Turner syndrome can lead productive successful lives in many different types of careers."


A good inoculation against such nonsense is Carol Tavris's book "The Mismeasure of Woman", which treats in part with how rabid we are as a culture to discover and essentialize gender differences, inflating tiny, barely statistically significant differences into Great Truths about how Men and Women Are And Should Be.

To take a much less fuzzy and much more likely gender difference than all this behavioral hoo-hah, while the average man is considerably taller than the average woman, I wouldn't be surprised if, say, 40% of women were taller than 40% of men. (Anyone have the proper number? It may not be 40, but I bet it's something like that). So if Men Should Be Taller Than Women It's Only Natural, that's 40% of the people who are Wrong and Unnatural...

And another problem, not limited to gender, is science journalism which routinely headlines findings on the order of "people in this demographic who drank red wine 3 evenings out of 5 have a lower incidence of L-nonsensical which has been found in increased levels in the occipital phlebotula of patients with gall bladder cancer" as "RED WINE CURES CANCER".


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