The Most Feminine Country in the World

May 8, 2014
The Swedish Model

The Swedish Model

Mars, Venus, and All That

Continuing on the theme of culture and personality, I’ve noticed that social psychologist Geert Hofstede has found Sweden to be the most feminine country in the world according to his theory of cultural dimensions. Apart from masculinity/femininity, these dimensions – that he also views as personality traits, at least judging by his website – also include individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance (strength of social hierarchy), long-term orientation, and indulgence/self-restraint. But in this post I’m going to focus on the gender dimension in this post. Is Sweden the most feminine country in the world?

As a Swede myself, I think this might be true, but it all depends on your definition of course. Here is how Hofstede defines it on his website,

The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

As all definitions, this one can be criticized. Women have part of achievement too – in a world of global capitalism you may argue that being modest and caring for the weak are big achievements. And men don’t necessarily look for material rewards, as can be seen in the case of for instance psychologist Hans Eysenck, composer Arvo Pärt or architect Antoni Gaudi. But overall, there is probably something to the general idea that men are competitors and doers and that women are caring and cooperative.

One way to validate this dimension would be with measures of gender equality, since we should expect feminine cultures to have more gender equality. Here is Hofstede’s measure compares to the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI),

Untitled

 

As you can see, there are clear similarities between these indices. The Nordic countries and the Netherlands (which is culturally similar to those countries) make up 5-6 spots of the top ten on all three.  Outside this zone the measures start varying with some European, Anglosphere and Latin American countries. So the Nordic region plus the Netherlands is where femininity is the strongest. I’ll refer to this as the Feminine region from now on.

The Difference between WEIRD and Feminine

This may come as a bit of a surprise since femininity and the related concept of gender equality appear to be an integral part of the Enlightenment legacy that is mostly found throughout Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, sometimes given the acronym WEIRD (as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), a region characterized by its civic-mindedness, human rights and lack of corruption. And while the Feminine region is within the WEIRD region it’s only one half of it with the Anglosphere with countries like America, Australia, and Great Britain making up the other half, which is no where near as feminine.

So it seems not all children of Enlightenment are created equal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explain or even mention this divide (although someone has probably mentioned it). If, as I suggested in my previous post, culture is ultimately the collective manifestation of our individual personalities, this would have to be a mainly genetic divide, perhaps created by different selective pressures within Northwest Europe. One possible explanation would be that farming in the Nordic countries, with its much harsher climate and long winters, would make flexibility in gender roles a fitness trait. The combination of scarcity of resources and the high energy costs of a cold climate means that margins are small even under normal circumstances. If your wife is too ill to milk the cows and your children won’t survive without the milk, then you have to be flexible and sometimes do women’s work.

Health Care

So, is femininity a good thing, besides for milking cows? Are these countries really more caring and cooperative? A society level measure of caring might be quality of health care. This can be highly subjective since health is made up of many subfactors not always easy to quantify into numbers. And poor health can be largely self-inflicted by people we don’t necessarily think of as weak. To get around these problems I went with child mortality. If we compare the Feminine region with the Anglosphere we also have the benefit of comparing otherwise very similar countries. Acording to a recent report published in the Lancet with estimates of  mortality rates for children under five years of age (deaths per 1000 live births for the year 2013), we have the following,

mortality

 

Compared to the Feminine region, the Anglosphere has a mortality rate that is 70 percent higher, and there is no overlap between these groups of countries. It may seem like a small difference compared to sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s striking to have such a difference between rich Northwest European countries (or their descendants).

Udate: Jayman wondered about whether race may be a factor for American mortality. According to CDC, first year mortality per 1000 births for White Americans is 5.11 so it’s roughly on the same level as the rest of the Anglosphere, especially given that the figures above are for the first 5 years. (Black 1-year infant mortality is at 11.42.)

Consensus versus Majoritarian Democracy

The other main aspect of femininity, cooperation, is something that is found in the political systems of these countries. The Feminine region is characterized by consensus democracy, especially in the sense that these countries have proportional electoral system, lots of political parties that form coalitions and with the ambition of getting broad support for decisions, not just within coalitions but with opposition and other interest groups and institutions. It’s the friendly, inclusive, and cooperative way of governing.

In contrast, the Anglosphere is characterized by the majoritarian model (see the link above) in which countries have fewer parties, form less coalitions with often just a single party in government at a time. The government also focuses more on their own agenda with less concern for and compromise with other parties, interest groups etc. It’s the competitive and take-charge way of governing.

Unlike with child mortality, it’s not obvious which of these models is the better; it depends on the situation and what you look to accomplish. Polls on how content people are with democracy and government do not show either of these models to be more popular than the other. But this offers more support to the idea that the WEIRD countries, while being very similar in other ways, differ in ways that can be described as masculine and feminine.

The Feminine Madness

Overall, femininity seems like a fairly good thing, seeing as how the most feminine countries in the world are wealthy, healthy and democratic.But what happens at the extreme ends of the spectrum? Just as for individual personalities you get crazy and maladaptive behavior. This can be seen in Sweden, where feminism has become so dominant that any critique is viewed as backward-minded bigotry by definition. The lack critique creates a sort of unsupervised playground for all sorts of crazy. According to a recent poll, 2.3 percent of the voters favoured the feminist party Feminist Initiative in the upcoming election to the European Parliament. Here is what one of their leaders said in 2002,

“The discrimination and the violations appears in different shapes depending on where we find ourselves. But it’s the same norm, the same structure, the same pattern, that is repeated both in the Taliban’s Afghanistan and here in Sweden.”

The Angel of Reason

Tanja Bergkvist – The Angel of Reason

But it’s in the academic community that feminism is the most influential and the consensus/conformity is the strongest. A rare example of someone rebelling against the insanity is Tanja Bergkvist, mathematician at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In her blog she reports on gender politics that the mainstream media normally don’t care to mention for political reasons. It’s unfortunately only in Swedish but if you’re interested you might try and crunch it through a translator. Otherwise, here are a few goodies from her blog that will show that words like “madness” and “insanity” are in fact appropriate,

  • In 2007, the University of Lund (one of the most prestigious) decided to introduce so-called gender certification for every single course. Meaning a course in for instance theoretical physics should include information about the implications and relevance regarding gender issues on things like quantum theory. One criteria for certification was whether the department in question was actively seeking an equal distribution of male and female teachers. However, the department of gender issues at the university turned out to have 89 percent female teachers!
  • The government guidelines on gender education in pre-school include reading only modern stories to children and avoiding the classics or at least changing the gender of the characters. Cinderella would be a pretty gay dude – but all the better I guess.
  • In 2008, the gender committee of the Science Council, a government agency created to promote scientific research, begins a three year project on the gender aspects of the musical instrument of the trumpet. Here is a quote presenting the project and the important questions it will raise, “What timbre in the wide spectrum of the trumpet becomes the norm and what timbre is perceived as deviant and labeled female and male respectively?”
  • Also in 2008, the company Swedish Nuclear Waste Disposal that manages all the waste from Sweden’s nuclear power plants, hired two gender experts to include a text in the company’s yearbook entitled, “Gender constructions, perceptions on gender and the experience of risk – a reflection on the meaning of gender in regard to attitudes to long-term management of nuclear waste.”
  • In 2009, a gender expert holds a lecture at a seminar at the University of Uppsala (like Lund a top university) and notes that a man in the audience appears inattentive. She later finds out from a third person that he commented on the way she was dressed. So she files a complaint of sexual harassment. The university informs the man that they have started an investigation about his conduct. So he calls the woman to explain the reason why he had commented on her clothes. The woman forwards this information to the university as evidence of further harassment. The man is then questioned and admits to looking in his papers at times during the lecture and apologizes for commenting her clothes, but is nonetheless officially reprimanded by the university president.

This is just 5 out of 213 posts on Bergkvist’s blog and I have in no way cherry picked them; I just took a few of the earliest that were easy to understand for non-Swedes. You might think I’m making this up (or that she is) but see for yourselves, there are links to sources on all this madness. When this happens on the individual level it’s called a personality disorder, but what do you call it on the societal level?

And at the other side of the spectrum of Hofstede’s cultural dimension, Japan scores as the most masculine country in the world. A whole different brand of crazy…

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TV Review: Girls (HBO) – Intellectuals without Intellects

January 29, 2014
Girls, nothing more, nothing less.

Girls. Nothing more, nothing less.

Critic’s Pet

For those of you who don’t have premium cable or get HBO through public TV as I do, the network has a show called Girls that has created a lot of publicity since its launch in 2012. It is a half hour show about a twenty something struggling writer in New York named Hannah Horvath. Her life revolves around her friends, work, boys, family, parties etc. There are no murders, no vampires, no spies or exotic locations (unless you think of New York as exotic). Just the everyday humdrum that we all share. This may sound painfully trivial, but most critics beg to differ,

“Lena Dunham’s [the creator of the show who also does the role of Hannah] much anticipated comedy about four single women in New York is worth all the fuss…” (Alessandra Stanley, NYT)

“Girls represents an exciting moment in television history because, like a handful of other shows (MTV’s ‘Awkward,’ most notably) it not only makes great use of the medium but has the creative guts to realign it for a new century and a new generation.” (David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle)

“It’s the distillation of a distinctive, incisive and brutally funny point of view and most importantly, it’s its own thing.” (Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post)

“Girls has potential to become a once-in-a-generation work that helps define a shared era.” (Hank Stuever, Washington Post)

“From the moment I saw the pilot of Girls, I was a goner, a convert.” (Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine)

Millennials, SWPLs, Hipsters

A recurring word in the reviews is “generation.” Critics love to think of Girls as the voice of the so-called Millennial generation. But only the part of that generation which they think of as socially relevant – the White, liberal, urban people, sometimes referred to as SWPLs. This reminds me of Judith Rich Harris who I wrote about in my previous post, and her ideas of how we develop from children into adults. We don’t think that much about who we are as individuals but more about which social category we fit in. That social category becomes our tribe. Which explains why critics love the show – they are just cheering for their team, or in this case their junior team.

This tribalism is made painfully obvious when Hannah dates a Black guy but breaks up with him because he turns out to be a conservative. By that happy accident her world is again as White as that of any SWPLs watching the show, who can appreciate her effort to fraternize and be liberally inclusive while at the same time be ok with the fact that all their friends are White. The ethnic friend fantasy should never become real. At least not unless the friend in question has been properly whitewashed. Needless to say, SWPLs see racism everywhere.

The Genius Working at the Coffee Shop: From Modernity to Hipsterity

But in spite of the boring social and political correctness, Dunham does try to portray the Millennial SWPLs unique situation – with both sympathy and criticism – although she says little of why they are in their particular situation; it’s just some existential backdrop that works as a common denominator for the characters. Their world is one of economic recession, in sharp contrast to when they were kids, and it’s socially confused; no one seems certain of what is right and wrong or how to behave. This insecurity occasionally creates some much needed nervous energy to the show, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it lacks meaning and never leads to any conclusions. It’s just weird rather than interesting.

At any rate, the young SWPLs in Girls find it hard to navigate this increasingly confusing and harsh reality. But they aren’t mere victims, but also pretty full of themselves. Dunham’s self-criticism (because she must be counted as a SWPL herself) is evident: this tribe is deluded and narcissistic. That insight saves the show from complete disaster, but it doesn’t save it from a clear failure in my view. Dunham tries to go for brutal honesty, but the question of where this delusional and inflated sense of self-worth comes from is left glaringly unanswered.

My personal guess is that the unflattering aspects of SWPLs have emerged gradually over a long period of time. An early incarnation of this tribe arose from Enlightenment, the modern people as I call them for lack of a better word, who in the 1700s embraced the new thing called science and wanted to implement the same rationality to society. These radicals were smart, creative and principled – an elite in many respects. But they were also naïve and blank slatist, not understanding that they too constituted a social category or tribe and were governed by the same psychological mechanisms as other tribes. So the moderns allowed more or less anyone admission to their tribe thinking the newcomers were genuinely like themselves. And being financially successful and generous they could bring in a steady stream of new members most of whom weren’t as intelligent, creative or civic-minded as they were, but instead more traditionally tribal and hostile towards outsiders.

And so the modern tribe became today’s SWPLs. They live in gentrified White neighborhoods (if they can afford it), and wear clothes that scream gay casual friday to mark their tribal distinctiveness. They get their degrees in sociology, arts or some other subject that doesn’t require too much brainpower. They eat organic food, recycle and perform all their other rituals but have much less of the inner qualities of their original modern ancestors. And this dumbing down, I believe, is the unique situation that Dunham doesn’t want to look into too carefully – the growing gap between an intellectual, elitist self-image and the horrifying reality of being a mundane, average person.

The Inexplicable Tragedy of Regression to the Mean

A phenomenon related to this decline is that of regression to the mean. This refers to the way intelligence (and probably a lot of similar traits) is inherited. Children don’t just inherit the average of their parent’s respective intelligence. Instead they’ll average somewhere between their parent’s level and the average of the larger population they belong to. So two SWPLs with IQs of 120 will have children whose average IQs might be around 110.  And being blank slatists, they can’t just accept this as a fact of life but will be disappointed or blame themselves or try to convince themselves that their little Hannah, working at the coffee shop is just as smart as they are. It’s just the economy, or all the existential issues that this new and highly complicated world entails. Or it could be a psychological problem. SWPLs have a lot of psychiatric conditions that supposedly make them look interesting rather than just dumb. (In Hannah Horvath’s case it’s OCD.) Because if all that’s wrong with her is an IQ of 105 then she is just like a regular White girl who listens to Taylor Swift. And Mom doesn’t like Taylor Swift, partly because her fans are the wrong kind of White people, and partly because Taylor Swift has talent and intelligence, and in the back of her head she knows that her daughter has neither.

The Modern Storyteller Fail

While you could make a decent show about a plain Jane and her equally plain friends, Girls also suffers from the modern kind of story-telling that I’ve mentioned in a previous post which fails to recognize that good meaningful stories have a basic archetypal structure – good versus evil and such. Instead Dunham just makes up little sketches and when she has enough to fill half an hour that becomes an episode. I’m in no way exaggerating when I say that these episodes can be seen in any random order. There is no beginning, no end, no one is really good and no one is really bad, no strong conflicts. It’s just one trivial event after another.

The critics don’t mind this because they are the small clique who love the modern nonsensical crap, and they also look at Hannah and think their deadbeat daughter really is special after all. The rest, I imagine, look at Dunham’s perky boobs that the camera lingers on for long periods of time in every single episode. One critic, Tim Molloy, had the audacity to ask Dunham about the purpose of all the nudity (more than I have ever seen in a TV show) and got this vitriolic response from Dunham,

Yeah. It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem…

On top of this, producer Jenni Konner asked Molloy why he thought he could talk to a woman that way, and producer Judd Apatow wondered how things would go with Molloy’s girlfriend after his misogynistic question. Which supports my idea that the gap between self-image and actual performance among the SWPLs has been growing for a long time and is not a problem exclusive to the Millennials.

But ultimately, boobs, even real and perky ones, will not keep the audience interested. Only storytelling can do that. That’s why no one really cares about the films from the 1960s and 1970s. And this is why no one really cares about Girls either,

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

This lack of interest is also interesting in that it shows how little people care about what these SWPL critics think. In spite of all the superlatives from all the big media, the Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards etc, the ratings haven’t even momentarily risen above the abysmal level that they been on since the show started. That’s gotta hurt.

I’m thinking if Hannah hadn’t wasted her time on that sociology degree, and practised really hard she might have been able to be a backup singer for Taylor Swift,


The Nurture Enigma – How Does the Environment Influence Human Nature?

January 21, 2014
Ms Smarty-Pants.

Ms Smarty-Pants

Historical Background

As some of you are well aware, a predominant idea among intellectuals has been that human nature is shaped by the environment, commonly known as the Tabula Rasa or in English, the Blank Slate. This has been the cornerstone of the Enlightenment, the political and philosophical movement of that grew out of late 1600s England and spread throughout the world (although mainly to countries of Northwest European origin). It was an idea that justified social reforms that greatly improved life for most people who were affected by them.

The Tabula reigned pretty much until 1975 when biologist E. O. Wilson wrote Sociobiology, a book that attempted to use evolution to explain not only animal but also human social behavior. Although this book shook things up in Academia it didn’t make that much impact elsewhere. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the reaction against the Blank Slate began to get serious. At this point in time people in the field of behavioural genetics conducted studies on the heritability of things like personality and intelligence that were so extensive and of such quality that they simply couldn’t be ignored. And they showed substantial heritabilities of not just some traits but all of them, something that still holds today. There were some die hard blank slatists, like biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who persisted but most of the resistance to the idea of an inheritable human nature had waned by the mid 1990s (at least that’s my impression).

So the general idea of all nurture and no nature was losing the battle but the vast majority of people were still unaware of this and continued their lives as if nothing had changed – carefully rearing their children during their “formative years” according to “expert” advice, and feeling great when they turned out good, and feeling guilty when they didn’t.  Then in 1998, a text book writer named Judith Rich Harris wrote a book called The Nurture Assumption, summarizing and popularizing the findings of behavioural geneticists, focusing especially on the implications for child development. This was followed in 2002 by psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, a broad exposé of the whole nature-nurture issue that in its informative and entertaining style became popular in wider circles. People still talk of the formative years even today (I just got a comment from one of them), but by now the tide has irreversibly shifted.

The Post-Slate Situation

So, what does the “new” research from the 1980s, that is now finally beginning to reach public awareness, tell us about human nature? The most obvious part is that nature is a major factor. This is typically summed up in textbooks in the 50/50 rule, claiming that genes and environment can explain about half of the variance each of things like intelligence, personality, psychopathology etc. Which is easy to remember – but also incorrect. This is due to the fact that there is something called measurement error. Most studies are done in a way that doesn’t distinguish this error from the environmental factor. So it’s 50 percent nature and 50 percent environment plus measurement error. Studies that have managed to minimize measurement error typically yield heritabilities for personality traits and similar characteristics around 70 percent. You also have the fact that some of the traits linked to the most important life outcomes, like intelligence and impulsiveness, have even higher heritabilities, around 0.75-0.80.

Equally important – and especially problematic for the adherents of Enlightenment –  is the distinction between shared environment and non-shared environment. It’s the shared environment – family, school, neighbourhood etc – that would lend itself to social reforms. But the research has consistently shown that this factor is very small, often close to zero. As behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin says,

‘Nurture’ in the nature–nurture debate was implicitly taken to mean shared environment because from Freud onwards, theories of socialization had assumed that children’s environments are doled out on a family-by-family basis.

So while there is still a fair amount of environmental influence, it’s not coming from parents, schools, teachers etc. Some people will never accept this; they are too stuck in their political views, they like to blame their parents for how they turned out or take credit for the success of their children. But rational and intellectually honest people will be forced to accept it.

Judith Rich Harris and the Enigma of Non-Shared Environment

But this still leaves us with a substantial environmental influence of the non-shared variety, the unique experiences of the individual, that undeniably affects our personality and intelligence. So what experiences are we talking about?

Oddly enough, 30 years after behavioural geneticists uncovered the importance of non-shared environment, we still don’t know anything about the nature of this influence. This great mystery that goes right to the heart of human nature seems to be uninteresting to both psychologists and the media. Possibly because of the political implications but it might be that they simply lack ideas or intellectual curiosity. After all, personality psychologists – 95 percent of whom identify as liberal – do not praise the Big Five model for all the theories it has generated but for all the consensus it has achieved. Yay…

But one woman, the above mentioned Judith Rich Harris, is actively searching for answers. In a chapter in the anthology The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences by psychologists David Buss and Patricia Hawley, she reviews the evidence, the old theories and proposes a new one that could explain the nature of the non-shared environmental influence.

Gene-Environment Interactions

This is not to say that she is the first to have attempted this. Some have claimed that parents, school and all that may still be important because of gene-environment interactions: the fact that the same environmental factor will affect two persons differently because of their different DNA. This would mean that the environment believed to be shared is really unique and non-shared and possibly very important.

While gene-environment interactions do occur, Harris argues that it’s highly unlikely for these interactions to cancel each other out. Would an overbearing teacher make one child anxious but the other calm and confident? Even if some children would become angry by such a teacher this would not be the opposite of anxious but rather two expressions of neuroticism. Apart from being implausible, Harris also points to the fact that interactions seem to be rare and most of the documented cases involve sensitivities in which people have the same reactions in varying degrees, not opposite reactions that would cancel each other out.

Even more damning to this theory is the research on identical twins. If things like family was in fact unique and non-shared due to gene-environment interaction for siblings it could not be that for the twins since they have identical DNAs so no interactions are possible. This would mean that parents, school etc would have a profound effect on all people with the exception of identical twins for whom it would mean little or nothing, which would make them fundamentally different from the rest of us. At the same time identical twins have the same size of shared and non-shared environment influence as everyone else. So even though it would be made up of completely different experiences it would still by some happy accident add up to exactly the same size. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Family Interactions

Another couple of theories that both try to save the idea of family as an important influence on human nature, are those of differential parental treatment and birth order effects. While it has been found that parents do treat their children differentially, Harris mentions research on this that showed no effect of this on the children. Instead it suggested that parents do this as a response to the children’s varying behavior. Which sounds very plausible: you would not expect a parent to lose his or her temper as often with a quiet and conscientious child as with an impulsive and emotionally unstable one.

Research has also failed to provide support for any effects from sibling interactions, a very popular theory. Sibling rivalry is something most people can recall from their childhood. It may seem only natural that all that bickering would have some impact. But to date, there is no evidence of that. Identical twins again provide further evidence to the contrary, since they have been found to compete less with each other (as they should according to the laws of evolution). This would mean that the sibling interaction effect would be smaller on them and we again end up with the idea that identical twins have a different shared environment than the rest of us but that it serendipitously adds up to the exact same size.

The Three Systems Theory

Instead of these half-hearted attempts at rescuing any possible remains of the Blank Slate, Harris proposes a different theory based on evolutionary psychology and especially on the observation that traits or mechanisms tend to evolve to solve specific problems and that they for this reason often are largely independent of each other.  So, what problems and what mechanisms?

Well, we know that personality is more malleable in childhood than in adulthood. This is most likely because the brain’s plasticity gradually decreases over the life span. So the environment should exert most of its influence during childhood. This means that we should look for basic adaptive problems that children face. Harris identifies three such problems: how to form personal relationships, how to fit in among your peers, and how to compete among your peers. To solve these problems she hypothesizes that the brain has evolved three mechanisms or systems which she calls the Relationship System (RS), the Socialization System (SS), and the Status System (STS).

The RS is basically an ever-growing database of information on people along with judgments of them based on that data. Since these judgments are used to relate to people they tend to be emotional – who we love, hate, fear, pity and so on. Another characteristic is that the data collected is consciously retrievable. The RS is the base of gossip; we talk about people we have stored information on and compare notes. Although in the modern world this is often done about celebrities that aren’t socially relevant to us.

The SS also collects data but on social categories – male, female, adult, child, rich, poor etc. This is essential information if you want to fit in because you need to know where to fit in – which social categories apply to you. Unlike the RS that looks at personal experiences of specific individuals, the SS generalizes about groups, stereotypes you might say. It’s the basis of our ingroup/outgroup distinctions, according to Harris. But when did we learn about these categories? At no particular time, it just builds up gradually. So unlike the information in the RS, there is no consciously retrievable memory of it.

Finally, we have the STS which collects information about where we stand in comparison to other people in our social category – because that’s where the competition takes place. The reason for keeping track of all the possible status hierarchies – being funny, smart, tough etc – is that it enables the child to find an optimal competitive strategy. So this system looks for things like respect, appreciation and recognition.

So which of these systems is the most likely mechanism by which non-shared environment can influence personality? Although Harris doesn’t say much about why the RS couldn’t do this, we already know that some central relationships in a child’s life are those with family members – which is shared environment and thus of little importance. Still, close friends seems like a possible candidate here… She points out that the least likely mechanism would be the SS, since this is a process by which the social environment (peers) reduce variance in personality as it makes children conform to the people in their social categories. But the STS looks very promising. When a child looks for an optimal strategy for competition, it isn’t looking to conform but to stand out. And if one niche is taken it will have to look for other venues. Like if you’re a big boy who is moderately funny in a peer group of plenty of really big guys but no one who can tell a joke, you may go against your genetic disposition and become the comedian rather than to assert yourself physically.

Evidence

Now that sounds like a plausible theory, but is there any evidence?

Harris agrees that her theory needs to be tested but she does have some evidence too. She mentions the fact that men who were tall as boys grow up to be more assertive and confident as adults. That height in adolescence predicts salary better than height in adulthood. Although she admits that the same thing that makes a person grow fast (androgens) may also be causing their assertiveness. To get around this Harris suggests that we look at relative age within peer groups. One important peer group is that of classmates in school, in which children can differ in age up to a year. This makes for differences in size and maturity that are unrelated to hormones or other biological factors. This relative age effect can be seen in sports where the older boys in groups of selection are picked up by better teams. This may seem stupid if all you do is select players who happen to be older than their peers. But what if being bigger also give them confidence that in turn make them better players?

A study by Dr Chris J Gee at the University of Toronto, published in the International Journal of Coaching Science gives some support for this idea. Gee has followed promising young hockey players over 15 years in order to see if personality can predict success in the sport. According to the study a composite measure of the typical traits thought to be linked to success – self-confidence, need for achievement, competitiveness etc – did in fact predict success. And in regard to the relative age effect common in drafting, Gee writes,

Interestingly, when height and weight (both commonly cited anthropometric indices used when scouting amateur hockey players) were entered into each of the previously mentioned regression models, they failed to significantly increase the amount of variance accounted for.

This strongly suggests that coaches pick the boys who are oldest in their age group, not because they are bigger or have more androgens or something like that, but because they have certain personality traits associated with athletic success. How did they get those traits if all that distinguishes them from other boys is that they happened to be born earlier? It seems to me that Harris’ theory fit these data very well: these boys became confident and assertive through their social environment of peers who couldn’t push them around. This put them on the track to athletic careers, while others who might have been of average size for their age but the youngest in their age group turned to comedy or some other way of becoming popular and getting status.

I think Harris may be on to something.


The Sour Grapes of Pisa

November 28, 2013
Still standing.

Still standing.

 

The new Pisa 2012 will be released on Tuesday, which for those who are unfamiliar with it is a recurrent survey on the performance of schoolchildren from all over the world. The winners in this survey tend to be the same over the years: various Chinese populations (Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore), Finland, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

A high rank is generally interpreted as the result of a good policy and a low rank will usually create headlines demanding reforms.

The Pisa Hall of Shame

At the bottom of the order we find poor and often Muslim countries like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Peru, Panama, Qatar and Albania. But besides rich countries at the top and poor at the bottom, there is also the phenomenon of over- and underachievers, poor countries whose children perform well and vice versa. This measure is more interesting since it indicates a failed education policy or other factors that may have been overlooked.

Some of the worst underachievers (excluding tax havens and small oil countries) are USA, UK, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. How do people in these countries respond to the results of the survey?

America: Self-Criticism and Fear of China

When commenting on the results American media have mainly been comparing themselves with China and been surprisingly self-critical, as for instance from Stacie Nevadomski in the Huff Post shows,

“The truth, the real news, is that there is no news here. These results should be no surprise. The long slide in American student performance relative to global peers has been a constant drumbeat, paralleling the domestic failures of our schools shown in Waiting for ‘Superman’.”

Or education secretary Arne Duncan,

“The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

James Fallows in The Atlantic agrees but adds that that Shanghai, the winner of the Pisa 2009, isn’t representative of the whole of China – which is correct; neither is Hong Kong or Singapore who also rank at the very top. These are all elite populations. America scored better against the other Chinese regions of Macao and Taiwan and it would probably do even better compared to all of China. Although those who are familiar with unpublished results from other parts of China claim they are very respectable.

Regardless of how well America compares to China, it’s still a fact that 13 countries score better than America and all have significantly lower GDP per capita. Maybe that would be a more constructive focus.

European Skepticism

A more disturbing reaction has come from some of the European underachievers. Recently, the largest newspaper in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter (Today’s News), has featured an article about the upcoming Pisa 2012, with the headline “Several Countries Cheated with School Results”, suggesting that countries like Italy, Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates has falsified their results. The article is based on an unpublished study by German and Canadian sociology professors Jörg Blasius and Victor Thiessen. “The result means that the credibility of the Pisa survey can be questioned,” says Blasius.

This story is also getting attention in Denmark, another underachiever, where one of the major papers, Berlingske Tidende has an article about it. The article includes other criticism as well, mainly that of Svend Kreiner, a statistics professor at the University of Copenhagen. Kreiner has analysed earlier results. He is critical of how a lot of questions are omitted for some countries but included for others. He claims the methods of scoring are so arbitrary Denmark could be ranked second or 42th depending on arbitrary tweaks in the evaluation. In the article, president of the Danish Teachers Association, Anders Bondo Christensen, says it’s time to scrap the survey altogether.

In the UK (also an underachiever), there is a similar discussion on the TES educational community. In an article, TES’s William Stewart writes,

“Politicians worldwide, such as England’s education secretary Michael Gove, have based their case for sweeping, controversial reforms on the fact that their countries’ Pisa rankings have “plummeted”. Meanwhile, top-ranked success stories such as Finland have become international bywords for educational excellence, with other ambitious countries queuing up to see how they have managed it.”

And,

“But what if there are “serious problems” with the Pisa data? What if the statistical techniques used to compile it are “utterly wrong” and based on a ‘profound conceptual error’? Suppose the whole idea of being able to accurately rank such diverse education systems is ‘meaningless’, ‘madness’?”

Sour Grapes?

However, fact is the alleged cheating is only concerned with follow-up questions to principals that have been found to be largely identical in many cases. It doesn’t concern the performance of the schoolchildren. It hasn’t even been established if it is actual fraud designed to make the countries in question look better or if it’s just a matter of laziness or even the fact that some principals are heads of more than one school.

Also for Kreiner’s analysis, Pisa’s own statistician, Andreas Schleicher, questions it on grounds that Kreiner is using a very small part of the data in spite of having access to all of it. He also questions the methods Kreiner used and suggests that they our outdated. As a response to alleged cherry picking, Kreiner replies by accusing Pisa/Schleicher of doing similar things. To me, that sort of rhetoric doesn’t exactly increase his credibility.

It’s not easy for a non-expert to make any sense of this, but I have to say that there is something disconcerting with the fact that Svend Kreiner is being awarded a prize for his critique while no one in Danish press is asking the questions that Schleicher’s comment raises. Is everyone in Denmark so familiar with statistics that it’s a non-issue? And big headlines about cheating even though it hasn’t been established?

Alternative Explanations

Rather than blaming the statistics, there could be other things behind why some countries underachieve. The most obvious thing would be changes in national IQs.

The Pisa survey (and similar tests) correlates strongly to intelligence tests; so much in fact that it actually is an intelligence test although it’s rarely referred to as such. This explains a lot of the rank order, because we know that intelligence is highly heritable and resistant to external forces – like education policies. Smart people like the Chinese are going to rank at the top and less smart people like Ugandans are going to be somewhere at the bottom. This is also a reason to be skeptical of the European sour grapes skepticism I mentioned earlier. If there was something seriously wrong with the Pisa it wouldn’t correlate so much with similar tests.

But intelligence alone can’t explain under- and overachievers. If we look at the latest national IQ estimates, the underachievers score like this,

Austria 99, UK 99.1, USA 97.5, Germany 98.8, Denmark 97.2, Sweden 98.6,

and, the three overachievers score like this,

Finland 100.9, Estonia 99.7 and Poland 96.1.

There is not much difference; the averages for these groups are 98.4 and 98.9. But maybe this snapshot disguises a trend in which underachievers are on the way down and vice versa?

Immigration

I would suggest that this is the case, and that the reason for this is immigration. East Asian countries don’t have much immigration to speak of, but in Europe there has been a varying influx of people in recent years, especially from Muslim countries. The national IQs in these countries are usually around 85 so Western countries that receive a lot of these immigrants should see a larger decline in national IQ averages than other countries. If we look at PEW’s survey of Muslims in Europe, we can make a comparison between over- and underachievers. The most striking overachievers are Estonia, Poland and Finland, countries that all have extremely small Muslim minorities making up 0.1, 0.1 and 0.8 percent of the population respectively. Compare that with the figures for the underachievers Austria 5.7, UK 4.6, Denmark 4.1, Germany 5.0 and Sweden 4.9. Many immigrants are very young children who will take the Pisa survey in years to come or are taking it now but have yet to become adults and have an effect on the economy. Since the Pisa survey is just an intelligence test for children they simply reflect the influx of young and low IQ people. Underachievers have a larger influx so they score worse than you’d expect from the current national IQs and wealth because the effects on these metrics will kick in some years in the future. And overachievers are just maintaining their national IQs and consequently rising in rank since the rank order is relative.

So the way to improve the scores is not to reform the education system but to change the immigration policy.

So, Any Bets for Tuesday?

If I was to guess I would base it solely on national IQs, immigration and introversion scores, although that last one is a bit speculative. This would lead me to the safe bet that East Asians will stay at the top and no real low IQ countries will surprise anyone with a high rank. Judging by the immigration projections from PEW, Eastern Europe looks like it could be on the rise, or at least maintaining positions, although Russia and Bulgaria look problematic. The real winners here are probably small to medium sized countries that are relatively stable, like Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. Western Europe will show a downward trend, especially for countries that are increasing their share of the Muslim population from an already high level, like the UK, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and France.

But whatever happens, you can be certain that many people in the underachieving countries will keep blaming the test. Because changing your view on human nature and society is hard work and shooting the messenger is easy.

For more details about the Pisa survey, check out Steve Sailers blog which features several interesting posts on this subject.


Openness to Experience – That Liberal Je Ne Sais Quoi

November 5, 2013
Forgot where he put his weed.

Looking for the anthology on existentialism, or maybe just his stash of weed.

Whatever you think of the Big Five personality model, most of its traits are easy to understand. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness are all pretty much what they sound like. Neuroticism is a little more problematic since it deals with emotional instability but only in regard to negative emotions, but it’s still easy to understand what it means – being anxious, worrisome, sometimes depressed. But then there is openness to experience. You’d think that would be equally straight-forward: being into new experiences, like travelling and experiencing other cultures, having broad interests, making new friends, maybe sexual experimentation and trying drugs as well. Not so much.

The Official Picture

Here is a list of words and phrases that psychologists feel characterizes this trait,

Intellectual, imaginative, artistic, cultured, refined, original, insightful, curious, creative, independent and divergent thinkers, appreciation of art and beauty, willingness to consider new ideas, unconventional.

And here are some test items that measure openness,

Have a rich vocabulary.

Have a vivid imagination.

Have excellent ideas.

Quick to understand things.

Use difficult words.

Spend time reflecting on things.

Am full of ideas.

Carry the conversation to a higher level.

Catch on to things quickly.

Love to think up new ways of doing things.

Love to read challenging material.

Am good at many things.

Or in reverse,

Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas.

Am not interested in abstract ideas.

Do not have a good imagination.

Try to avoid complex people.

Have difficulty imagining things.

Avoid difficult reading material.

Will not probe deeply into a subject.

Intelligence and Creativity

When looking at these items, it’s pretty easy to notice two separate factors, one of intelligence,

Intellectual, have a rich vocabulary, quick to understand things, spend time reflecting on things, catch on to things quickly. (Whoever makes these tests clearly has a thing for the word “thing”.)

And one of creativity,

Have vivid imagination, have excellent ideas, full of ideas, love to think up new ways of doing things.

This is not something I personally discovered just now. Already back in 1981 psychologists John Digman and Naomi Takemoto-Chock analyzed the openness factor and found two sub-factors, “one of which appeared to be concerned more with intelligence, the other with matters of culture.” Others have referred to these factors as “reflection and curiosity/experimentation/hypotheses testing.” (Couldn’t find a link to the article so if you have one please let me know.)

Not that there is anything wrong with combining two traits into one. The trait of psychopathy is a combination of impulsivity and lack of empathy. That’s a meaningful construct because while both factors are relatively harmful the combination produces a type of person that make up less than one percent of the population but 20 percent of all convicts. And many of the other prisoners are afraid of them. That effect makes it a useful construct.

Openness, however, is supposed to be a broad factor of personality, a basic building block that only breaks down into aspects of itself, so-called facets. Like the shades of a color. Although some facets of other Big Five factors are questionable, the overall picture is clear – they are really aspects of the same thing, not combinations of essentially different traits. The same goes for broad factors of other models, like those of Eysenck, Cloninger or the MBTI, based on Jung’s theory.  So you might say such a factor is a contradiction in terms – it’s not broad or basic, it’s narrow and specific.

The Correlates – In Search of the Je Ne Sais Quois Factor

Unless of course you think of intelligence and creativity as two aspects of some underlying factor that is for some reason called openness to experience. But what would that factor be? We all know what conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion boil down to, but what is the core of openness to experience? It’s clearly not being literally open to experience because sensation seekers and the similar novelty seekers are very open to various experiences and measures of those only correlate modestly with openness. Perhaps the behavioral correlates of openness can give us a hint. Unsurprisingly, it correlates to measures of intelligence and creativity but that’s to be expected since it measures exactly those traits in the tests. Is there some other correlates that suggests an underlying factor behind both of these?

Liberal values. A liberal attitude has consistently been linked to openness (as has conscientiousness to conservatism). There is some research to suggest that liberalism is linked to intelligence, although this study is of moderate quality. And artists, generally thought to be a liberal group, do score about half a standard deviation higher than non-artist according to a big meta-study made by psychologist Gregory Feist. So this correlate clearly supports the idea of a two-factor trait rather than an underlying factor of openness.

Entrepreneurship. Openness appears to be a part of the entrepreneurial personality (along with high extraversion and conscientiousness and low agreeableness and neuroticism). But this is almost by definition a matter of creativity and most likely to some degree intelligence, so again nothing lurking beneath these two factors.

Migration. People high on openness tend to move around more, both within and between countries. Could be something beyond intelligence and creativity. I don’t see it, but let me know if you do.

Extramarital Affairs. This has not been properly established. There is a huge global study on this that found no link between openness and infidelity. (Instead it found this to be a matter of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness.)

Trying new foods. This sounds like creativity maybe in conjunction with a liberal appreciation of other cultures.  And of course a bit of sensation seeking since as I mentioned before this trait has a modest correlation to openness.

Tattoos and piercing. I haven’t found any evidence that this relates to intelligence or even creativity. On the other hand, what underlying factor of openness would it be an indication of?

The Mystic Component

Dreams. People who score high on openness remember their dreams and often use their dreams to solve problems. This may be something that isn’t just a matter of intelligence or creativity or a combination of both. I have yet to see any research to confirm it but it’s a possibility perhaps suggesting that openness is some form of transcendent quality.

Spirituality. This somewhat vague dimension of religiousness, often defined more as a quest than a belief, has been found to correlate with openness.

Schizotypy. This trait, which is basically schizophrenia light, is also linked to openness.

This certainly looks like a candidate for an underlying factor but it’s most likely not. In a large high quality study of religion and intelligence, psychologist Gary Lewis found a correlation between spirituality and IQ of -0.05, which he generously refers to as support of the stronger inversed relation found by Kanazawa and others, but in reality it indicates that there is no relation between the two whatsoever. Other research has shown schizotypy to be linked to creativity so it would seem this mystic component belongs in that sub-factor.

Susan Sarandon - the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, a bit a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

Susan Sarandon – the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, like a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

In Any Way Useful?

But even if openness fails miserably, in my opinion, as a broad factor of personality it could still be useful. The two-factor trait of psychopathy has relevance in many situations, indeed, no one would find it irrelevant to know if the person in front of them is a psychopath or not.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with openness. The correlates I’ve mentioned above represent a large portion of what we know about this trait. And they don’t suggest any real need for this trait at all. They can all be reduced to either intelligence or creativity or a unsynergistic combination of the two. With the possible exception of something like migration and tattoos and piercing. Compare this with just a few correlates of conscientiousness like divorce rate, overweight and health, school and work performance and leadership. It’s just very hard to understand what use psychology (or anyone) can have of the trait openness to experience.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

And yet, if we combine all the features and correlates into a portrait we might find a clue to have this trait has become so prominent in personality psychology. The open person is of high intelligence and presumably also creative. He (or she) is a liberal with interests that lean more towards the humanities and soft science than hard science. He is not an atheist but also not part of traditional religion – a searcher rather than a dogmatic person. To me, this sounds a bit like a well-educated hippie, a White Californian, like for instance the always interesting blogger Santi Tafarella. But more than anything else, it sounds like a psychologist.

 

 


Am I Missing Something or Is Malcolm Gladwell a Fraud?

October 24, 2013
Another Jonah Lehrer?

Another Jonah Lehrer?

In an interview at Tuesday, writer Malcolm Gladwell is on The Daily Show plugging his new book David and Goliath. It deals with the notion of “desirable difficulties”, how you can overcome seemingly debilitating conditions and turn them into assets. One such condition, supposedly, is dyslexia, a disorder characterized by difficulties in basic language skills, like reading and writing.  So how is that desirable?

Gladwell mentions the phenomenon of successful and dyslectic entrepreneurs saying, “they didn’t succeed despite of their dyslexia, but because of it” and that their childhood problems with this condition “forced them to learn all kinds of strategies that ended up being more important.” More generally, he remarks that when asked about the reasons for their success they often speak of all sorts of problems as a source of their success. He seems blissfully unaware of the idea that this may be how people enjoy thinking about themselves – as the guy who beat the odds with his guts and determination. I’ve at least never heard anyone attribute their success to having a rich and powerful dad. And yet isn’t that how George W Bush became president, a man who many believe have dyslexia or some similar condition?

Or maybe Gladwell is well aware that this type of success stories sell, especially if they’re made to look as if they also tell the reader something new and interesting about human nature. Am I being cynical here? Let’s look at the evidence.

The only real, non-anecdotal evidence Gladwell presents is that a disproportionate number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. This claim seems to be based on a study by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London. In it Logan says,

This research set out to find an explanation for the high proportion of dyslexics among successful entrepreneurs…

This is a sneaky way of putting it because the word “high” suggests that it would be disproportionate, as Gladwell claims. But the study found no such thing. In fact, it didn’t even attempt to, since it has a sample size of ten (10) individuals who were selected because they are dyslectic and successful entrepreneurs! It’s interesting to note in the clip from The Daily Show when Gladwell mentions four such dyslectic entrepreneurs and and the host Jon Stewart jokingly wonders if they are only four and Gladwell laughs and says, “there is significantly more.” This way it appears as if he had a few dozen, but from what I’ve gathered there are only the ten from Logan’s study. Are an additional six really significantly more?

Anyway, where did Gladwell come up with this idea that dyslectics are overrepresented among prominent entrepreneurs? I haven’t read the book but in the Barnes & Noble Book Blog review, Amy Wilkinson states that it contains the claim that some 30 percent of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. But Logan’s study doesn’t state this anywhere. However, in her review of her own previous research she mentions that she found that 35 percent of all American entrepreneurs – successful or otherwise – have dyslexia. So it seems that when Logan cautiously stretched the truth with her “high proportion”, Gladwell took this one step further and fabricated the idea of a disproportionate amount of dyslectics in this group.

I guess I’ll have to read the book to be sure, but this looks very suspicious.

Update: I’ve now read the parts of the book that concern dyslexia. His claim is found in the quote,

An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London puts the number somewhere around a third. The list includes many of the most famous innovators of the past few decades.

And as I said above, Logan only claims that roughly a third of all American entrepreneurs are dyslectic. She pushes the same idea as Gladwell, that they are successful but all she can provide is self-rated competence and the rate at which the dyslectics grow their businesses – neither of which is evidence of actual success.

On The Daily Show he makes the same claim,

If you look at groups of very successful entrepreneurs or professionals you will find a much greater than expected number of dyslectics among their ranks.

Now he examplifies with people like Richard Branson, Charles Schwab etc giving the impression that dyslectics are disproportionate among the entrepreneurial stars.  But the research he is basing his claim on is still made on a sample of  all dyslectic entrepreneurs. It’s not a subset as Gladwell implies. And their success has not been established. This is just a simple case of having an idea, looking for the evidence, not finding it – and then making it up.


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