Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

The Gender force

More and more it's becoming clear that stereotypes can have pretty nasty and insidious effects. It's quite one thing to say that there are, e.g., sex differences, and quite another to ask where they come from. Here's my basic philosophy: there cannot be any assumption of a difference at the individual level, even if there is any amount of evidence to the contrary at the population level. Think of it this way: if you look at the 1000 fastest times in the 100m dash, the 1000th fastest man (10.08 sec) is faster than the fastest woman (10.49 sec). So, if tomorrow you went to your local race track and there was one man racing one woman, whom would you bet on? If you were a little cautious, you might first try to find out what happened in past encounters; nothing ensures that that particular man is faster than that particular woman. Basically, what it boils down to is not having prejudices. Anyhow; one of the things about prejudices is that they can act against you: you classify yourself as type X, and behave as befits X. But it appears that not everyone believes this Insidious Theory of Stereotypes, so its nice to see a paper that shows this in an interesting way: Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine at the U. British Columbia gave women 2 GRE-like maths tests, with a GRE-like verbal test squeezed between the two. The first maths test was a baseline for basic abilities. The comprehension test was the independent variable, with 4 groups: (G): said that sex differences in math abilities were due to genetic reasons, (E) said they were due to experiental factors, (S) talked of gender differences without referring to maths and (ND) talked nothing about sex differences. The dependent variable was the score in the 2nd maths test, corrected by the scores in the first. Women score worse on the 2nd test if they study passages relating to gender differences in general (S) than to gender-unrelated passages (ND). The interesting thing is in the two other groups: in the genetic-cause group (G), women perform as bad as in the S group; but in the experiental cause (E) group, women perform better: as in the ND group. What's nice is that while reading about gender differences in general or those related to math abilities in a genetic context are "bad", reading about differences for maths because of experiential effects actually result in better scores. It's as if the women think that if it's up to different experiential factors, it cannot be generalized. But what's a bit strange is that the authors conclude that mere exposure to scientific theories of gender differences (e.g. genetic causes) might be bad. But that doesn't explain why there are no differences between the G and S groups. Here's a possibility: according to the Insidious Theory of Stereotypes, identifying with a group and having a stereotype for that group is deleterious if you yourself are part of said group. But, there is an ameliorating effect if you then realize that the bad things happen not across the board, but in that subset categorized by, (in this case, for example,) different experiential factors. So, for me the message is not that scientific studies should be treated with caution etc. It's that the Insidious Theory is everywhere. As for treating scientific theories; mankind will just have to realize that even if homosexuality is (relatively) rare and rape is (relatively) common in the mammalian lineage, this scientific fact has no place in the functioning of the human society any more than does the fact that salt typically has a cuboid structure ad is made up of Na+ and Cl-... *** Ref: Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine, (Oct 2006). "Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance" Science 314(5798), pg. 435

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