Is gender equality endangered by stating that biological factors influence our thought?

Occasionally, people tell me the following: Saying that “biological factors play a role in psychological gender differences” is dangerous for a number of reasons. Reason 1: Some say that it simply not true that biology has any relation to gender differences.These people argue that all differences between people result from socialisation and environmental factors. Reason 2: Others are not so much interested in whether it is true or not that biology plays a role, but they are more interested in the potential implications of that statement, arguing that “accepting the role of biology” will support old-fashioned sexism and traditional gender roles that hinder progress in gender equality. Here I will argue that this is not the case, and that one can even make the case that “exclusively accepting the role of socialisation and environmental factors” can lead parents and society to bigoted decision making.

Question 1: Do biological factors play a role in psychological sex differences?

I would argue that practically all researchers would accept that biological factors influence psychological gender differences at least to some degree. If you think that all human attitudes and knowledge are learned from scratch (i.e., no biology is involved), and that only animals have clearly many instinctive behaviours (i.e., arguing that only some female animals have inborn maternal instincts), you probably need to reconsider that humans are animals as well. It just seems impossible that humans have developed into a species that does not have built-in mechanisms influencing our psychology. Of course, some religious people might not accept this, but that is another story.

A good example of instinctive thoughts and behavior beyond the control of learning and socialisation are related to our sexual preferences. For example, whether we are attracted to men or to women is strongly biologically determined (both hetero and homosexuality). You cannot really help it, it just happens. Another example is the maternal instinct.

What is also interesting is that there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone can change sexual orientation through learning. Some conservative Christians (who do not believe in evolution) have tried but failed miserably. If you are interested in facts in a easy to understand way, this video about nature vs nurture might be a good place to start. Thus, not only are some psychological traits based on our biology, some of these traits are fairly stable, in the sense that you cannot overrule them with learning. Of course, other traits can be overcome with learning. I haven’t looked up the data on this carefully, but fear of height seems something to be that can be changed with experience.

It is easy to see that if one psychological variable can be influenced by biological factors (such as hormones), that other psychological factors can as well. That does not mean that socialisation and learning do not play a role. The point is that both play a role, not just learning and socialisation, etc, as some people argue.

Question 2: Does believing that biology play a role foster old-fashioned sexism?

Let me first make one thing clear. Of course there is such a thing as old-fashioned sexism, and I feel sorry for people who are the victim of this, such as people who were denied the opportunity to study what they wanted because parents or teachers told them that it would not fit their idea of what boys or girls can do. I do not believe that this is very common today in developed nations, though. At least, not that I am aware of it, but I know that some people argue it is related to a more subtle everyday sexism.

My main point here is that the statement that “biology plays a role in the explanation of psychological gender differences” does not support the old-fashioned sexism, nor believing in traditional gender roles any more than “environmental variables play a role in the explanation of gender differences“.

Now some of you might ask, how could believing only in the role of environmental variables lead to any bad political or personal decision making? I will just give here some examples. One is homophobia. Extreme anti-homosexuality lobbyists will argue that homosexuality is not an inborn trait, but that it is chosen behavior that can be changed with conversion therapy. They argue that this might be caused due to a problematic childhood, the wrong friends, and so on. I am not sure there are many of such people around these days, the idea seems fortunately on its way out.

In fact, you could argue that “accepting the role of biology” counters prejudice! In many ways, the biological proof that heterosexual or homosexual orientation is beyond anyone’s control (there might be some exceptions, but I am talking about the large majority) might have supported the fact that people today mostly accept people’s sexual orientation like people accept that no one has control over his or her racial background. Again, here is a good video about this.

You can come up with other potential scenario. You could imagine that if parents want specific types of behavior from their children just because they find that desirable, they might want to influence their children’s behavior with special toys. They might only give very girly pink toys to a girl to make sure she socialises into becoming the girl the parents want her to become (again, because they might believe that she must be socialised in becoming heterosexual, which they might believe increases the likelyhood of many grandchildren, or something similar). After all, in general, an exagerated believing in the role of socialisation puts an enormous burden on parents to constantly choose the correct environment they think is needed to develop the right personality and character; this because the socialisation people argue that a child can literally become any type of person depending on their type of socialisation and environment.

Instead, more biologically aware parents understand that there are limits to what the role of socialisation can do, and that ultimately the inner drives of a child will help the child to indicate to the parents what it likes to play with, and that parents have no control whatsoever over the development of the sexual orientation of their children.

Still, nobody argues that we should silence researchers who believe that “environmental factors play a role in learning and can explain differences between people” because, for example, some intolerant homophobes or extremely over-controlling parents base their ideas on the imporant role of socialisation and environmental factors.

I hope that this blog won’t lead to such a silencing. Can you imagine that angry people on twitter ask a researcher to stop claiming that “socialisation plays an important role in child development“, because we know that this fosters over-controlling parents in making their children’s life difficult?

So now over to you. Do you agree or not? Leave a comment please! Debate is always good, and if your comments are convincing and with strong arguments (rather than just “you are wrong”), you really have a chance to change or strengthen opionions.


About Gijsbert Stoet

Gijsbert Stoet is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Glasgow. Gijsbert has carried out research in psychology and neuroscience and is particularly interested in gender differences in thought and behavior. Gijsbert has published a number of papers on this topic in well-known scientific journals.
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One Response to Is gender equality endangered by stating that biological factors influence our thought?

  1. Pingback: Five common misunderstandings about gender differences research | sex differences, cognition, and education

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