Revisting Personality Type and Gender: A Prerequisite For Survival.

Posted on April 17, 2011

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In a previous post, I discussed the age old question of whether or not men and women have unique and distinct personalities because of their gender. I discussed the question from the perspective of the Myers-Briggs personality test and I argued, based on the research that I could find online, there is no good reason to think men and women have unique and distinct personalities because of their genders.

In this post, I want to discuss the age old question from the perspective of “The Big Five” personality traits, a descriptive model of human personality for which there seems to be a broad consensus regarding its empirical validity. According to this model, a human personality can be accurately measured with respect to five domains: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

If Wikipedia can be believed (the citations look legitimate), from the perspective of “The Big Five”, there are clear and measurable differences in personality based on gender which are apparent across cultures.

Cross-cultural research from 26 nations (N = 23,031 subjects) and again in 55 nations (N = 17,637 subjects) has shown a universal pattern of sex differences on responses to the Big Five Inventory. Women consistently report higher Neuroticism and Agreeableness, and men often report higher Extraversion and Conscientiousness. Sex differences in personality traits are smaller in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities that are equal to those of men. Both men and women tend to grow more extraverted and conscientious and less neurotic and agreeable as cultures grow more prosperous and egalitarian, but the effect is stronger for men [source].

On first inspection, this seems to support the age old notion that a person can be expected to have a specific kind of personality because of his or her gender. Closer inspection reveals something else: the differences between the genders are less apparent in certain kinds of cultures. What does this suggest? It is the culture and environment in which men and women find themselves that is the more relevant factor.

One doesn’t need to be too radical a feminist to recognize that a woman’s well-being is at a much greater risk in cultures that aren’t prosperous, healthy or egalitarian. It comes as no surprise to me that women tend to be more neurotic and agreeable in these environments. I suspect it is a prerequisite for survival. I’m also sure that, if the male population were further segmented between the bullies and the bullied, the latter would also be more neurotic and agreeable. Furthermore, so long as men are able to use violence and physical coercion as a means to resolve their disputes with women, it is not unreasonable to expect women to be a bit more neurotic and agreeable on the whole. They are this way not because of their gender; they are this way because the fact of their gender is too often used as an excuse by others — both men women — to treat them in a manner which leads to a rational, consistent, and seemingly universal response.

Of course, that “on the whole” alludes to another important consideration which is often overlooked in these discussions of personality types and gender. Individual men and women are born and raised in a variety of cultures and environments and, as a result, can be expected to exhibit a variety of personality traits and types. Since this is true, is there really any value comparing the average man with the average woman when, strictly-speaking, neither exist?

More on this point at another time!