Revisting Personality Type and Gender: A Cosmetic Distinction!

Posted on March 5, 2011

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Historically, it is often claimed that a disproportionate number of women exhibit a certain set of personality traits and a disproportionate number of men exhibit a distinct set of personality traits.

From the perspective of the Myers Briggs framework, it is said women tend to prefer “to come to decisions by associating or empathizing with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside’ and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit, considering the needs of the people involved.” In contrast, men tend to “decide things from a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent and matching a given set of rules.” In either case, both decision “styles” can be more or less rational, depending on the given circumstance and the decision made (Source). Call the first style of reasoning, F-type, and the second, T-type.

There is, it seems [big “seems”, read on], empirical evidence to support the claim that women prefer F-type reasoning and men prefer T-type. For instance, it is often claimed online that roughly sixty per cent of women prefer F-type reasoning and sixty per cent of men prefer T-type. Thus, on the whole, most women are F-type reasoners and, on the whole, most men are T-type. Unfortunately, as often as I find this claim online, I can’t find a study to justify it. I should also admit I have been guilty of citing these numbers in conversation and, probably, even on this blog. I thought I sourced them in a peer reviewed paper but I can no longer find the mysterious source! Looks like I may have been guilty of some lazy online research!

After a little more digging, I found a credible source, which initially seems to support the claim that the genders are divided along a preferred type of reasoning. The surprising conclusion is that men often falsely report their preferences. On closer scrutiny, it seems many more men, who are initially assessed as T-type reasoners, are, in fact, F-type. The gender differences that seems to exist in the numbers might very well be caused by men who prefer to think of themselves as T-type reasoners when they are, in fact, F-type.

It should also be emphasized that the MBTI test is designed only to measure preferences. We are all capable of employing either type of reasoning and we all do, depending on a variety of different factors, and, it seem plausible, we might even use both types of reasoning for any given decision. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that the different forms of reasoning will lead to different conclusions. Ultimately, the MBTI test, even when perfectly administered by a trained professional, only indicates a generalized preference which may or may not manifest itself in any given circumstance. So, even if some well-executed study demonstrates a strong correlation between gender and reasoning preferences, I’m not sure it will be of much use to us on a person-to-person and day-to-day basis.

Moreover, I now doubt the validity of the distinction drawn between the two types of reasoning. When I imagine a group of human primates living on the edge of survival thanks only to their mutual cooperation, it is, I think, very logical for them to employ F-type reasoning to draw conclusions about the vast majority of the decisions they face. Once I draw this conclusion, I then start to wonder if anything meaningfully distinct is captured with the expression “…a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent and matching a given set of rules.” There is, after all, no reason to assume that reasoning involving empathy, internal coherence, and giving due consideration to the balance of reasons is not also reasonable, logical, causal, consistent, and involve rule-following. “Thou shall take all perspectives into consideration to identify the best outcome” is a rule that is reasonable, logical, consistent, and causal! Similarly, I know many reasonable and logical people who solve complex problems “by associating … with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside’ and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit, considering the needs of the … [ideas] involved.” For example, a thought experiment about what it might be like to travel at light speed is consistent with this kind of reasoning. Some mathematicians also solve math problems the same way some people just get other people.

My claim, then, is this: the proposed distinction between F-type and T-type reasoning is tantamount to a distinction between “six” and a “half-dozen”. The only difference is the language employed to describe the very same phenomenon. Perhaps, some people prefer to describe their reasoning with one set of words as opposed to another but I don’t think the preference is terribly important to understanding how they reason. In support of this claim, I note that the “Big Five Personality Traits,” for which there is a growing body of supporting empirical research, does not seem to have a distinct trait corresponding to the F/T distinction. Finally, even a cursory glance at the cognitive neuroscience research on reasoning suggests there is much more going on in our brains when we reason than is implied by the F/T distinction.

The last lingering question, of course, is why a particular description of reasoning was identified, distinguished, and, for the most part, privileged. I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that appeals to higher order, abstract principles, or ideals is an easy way to disregard the reasonable claims of others standing in front of us.