Relationship problems? Don’t blame gender differences

No matter how inscrutable men and women sometimes seem to each other, odds are that gender difference is only a small part of the picture.

“People think about the sexes as distinct categories,” says Harry Reis, who holds the title of Dean’s Professor in the Department of Psychology. “‘Boy or girl?’ is the first question parents are asked about their newborn, and sex persists through life as the most pervasive characteristic used to distinguish categories among humans.”

But in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he held up for statistical scrutiny 122 different characteristics—from empathy and sexuality to science inclination and extroversion—in men and women. And he found that the sexes, by and large, don’t fall into different groups.

Reis and his collaborators—including lead author and then doctoral student Bobbi Carothers ’03 (PhD)—reanalyzed data from studies that had shown significant, even large, sex differences. They also collected their own data on a range of psychological indicators. And they reopened studies of the “big five” personality traits: extroversion, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and conscientiousness. In all that they examined, they looked for evidence of attributes that could reliably categorize a person as male or female.

The pickings were slim. For the vast majority of psychological traits, there was no significant gender pattern.

Emphasizing inherent differences between the sexes can be harmful in the context of relationships, says Reis. “When something goes wrong between partners, people often blame the other partner’s gender immediately.” That reaction prevents people from seeing their partners as individuals with their own proclivities and idiosyncrasies.

“When psychological and intellectual tendencies are seen as defining characteristics, they are more likely to be assumed to be innate and immutable. Why bother to try to change?” Reis says.

Gay and lesbian couples, he adds, “have much the same problems relating to each other that heterosexual couples do. Clearly, it’s not so much sex but human character that causes difficulties.”

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