Klyde the Barbarian

Stories set in the distant past often describe extremely gendered characters, like Conan the barbarian, or Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. The prototypical ripped caveman supposedly dragged his buxom woman to his cave by her hair.  It seems that rich folks today assume that civilization has forced them to sacrifice gender distinctiveness in order to become peaceful productive members of society.

But this is a myth; in fact poor cultures can’t afford very distinct genders; survival demands a similar mix cooperativeness, toughness, and so on from both men and women.  The typical barbarian was more a Klyde than a Conan. The data:

Sex differences in personality traits are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with those of men. … Women reported higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than did men across most nations. … Overall, higher levels of human development — including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth — were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality. Changes in men’s personality traits appeared to be the primary cause of sex difference variation across cultures. It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations. In less fortunate social and economic conditions, innate personality differences between men and women may be attenuated.

Thus one of the main way rich societies spend their wealth is to make their genders more distinct, especially via more extremely male men.  Men in rich cultures today are probably more distinctively male than at any time in history.  This fits with what I said about the recent rise of unwed moms:

Women free to pick a dad without expecting him to stay as a long term helper probably pick sexier men.  This should create more inequality in male access to women for sex and kids, and give men more free time to compete to be the few super-sexy super-dads.

An interesting related finding:

Manhood, in contrast to womanhood, is seen as a precarious state requiring continual social proof and validation. Because of this precariousness … men feel especially threatened by challenges to their masculinity.

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  • Mike

    Very interesting. I agree that men feel especially threatened by challenges to their masculinity — from my experiences with “chauvinism” and “homophobia” in high school, I have come to think of these as stemming ultimately (among teenagers) from men trying to assert masculinity.

    I guess one could make sense of the assertion that men feel greater social pressures than women, if one assumed for instance that men are more needy of sex than women, because of physiology (which itself makes sense considering the costs/benefits of each with regard to reproduction).

    The problem I have, though, is with the evidence. Do men make greater personal sacrifices to attract women, or vice versa?

    I agree with something I think I read on this blog, which is that by and large people exercise and otherwise strive for health more because of the status that it conveys, than because it extends lifetime. By standards of amount of exercise, or low body weight, or diet, can it be established that men make greater sacrifices than women to maintain their appearance? I don’t know, but my guess would be no, women do so more then men. This seems to indicate that women experience greater pressure to be feminine than men to be masculine.

    Now, one could argue that our society defines “femininity” more respect to physical appearance than it does “masculinity.” So, among the whole package of feminine attributes that women feel pressure to develop, physical appearance is a larger component for them than for men. This makes sense, if you believe less attractive men can still attract women by virtue of wealth or success, whereas women are less able to attract men by these means. But I think testing this hypothesis introduces a number of complications, because of all the side benefits of wealth and success, and because there might in fact be pressure for women to *not* develop related attributes, if they perceive for instance then men are intimidated by wealth and success.

    • bcg

      Well, the risk-taking behavior of men designed to win mates does kill a proportion of them, so when it comes to personal sacrifices to attract a mate, there’s always that.

  • Matt

    I wonder how exactly they define maleness. Also, is this a chicken and egg argument? Could extreme maleness help cause a society to prosper? Is extreme maleness and prosperity caused by the same thing? How strong is the correlation?

    • John Maxwell IV

      Rationality is associated with masculinity, as is playing russian roulette. And yet I strongly suspect that playing russian roulette is not rational according to the value systems possessed by most men. Masculinity is not consistent and therefore likely undefinable.

  • Mike

    Re-reading your post, it doesn’t explicitly suggest that men feel “more pressure,” as much as that male status is “more precarious.”

    My above post doesn’t appreciate this. If femininity is associated more so with certain physical attributes, then this does seem “less precarious,” at least insofar as one ignores aging. A physically attractive women can probably be more assured that, whatever situation she enters, her “femininity” will be appreciated. Insofar as men rely less on physical appearance to convey masculinity, they have to establish masculinity by less readily appreciated means in every new situation.

    • Person

      Right, a man’s “sexiness” can easily go up or down depending on the circumstance. A woman’s, however, is fairly constant.

      • Female

        Or rather, it steadily deteriorates after its early peak, rather than being as volatile as a man’s; with effort a woman may fight the decay and slow the decline, but she’s still creeping downhill.

        Reminds me a little bit of differences in class mobility. (As an unremarkable-looking woman, chasing the masculine dream doesn’t sound so bad.)

  • Timothy

    Depending on how long ago “the distant past” was, you may have overstated the case. The change from masculine men and feminine women likely occurred when humanity developed from hunter-gatherer to agricultural. Hunter-gatherer life required masculine men to hunt and fight, and comparatively feminine women for child raising and sundry activities; agricultural life required far less masculinity in men (the reduction in femininity required in women was probably less, and possibly negative). Yet modern man still retains hunter-gatherer genes, and thus desires to express more masculinity than agricultural life finds optimal. Such masculine expression becomes a luxury good; men desire to do it, and women find it attractive in men, yet it is costly, and so occurs more in richer nations who can bear the cost.

  • Masculine and feminine roles are more clear-cut in less-developed societies. Primitive societies typically (and when I say “typically” I actually mean “without exception so far as I know out of the hundred or so I have looked into”) have ironclad (stoneclad?) rules about which gender can do what activities. (Yes, there are groups in which one could opt to adopt the other gender’s activities. But none that I know of in which you can do both.)

    I would need more data to be convinced. You wrote above, “The data: … Changes in men’s personality traits appeared to be the primary cause of sex difference variation across cultures.” That’s not data. That’s a reference to data.

  • Timothy

    Possibly as societies develop there is a change from gender roles based on activities to ones based on personalities; as the complexity of society increases, and the distinction between what work or leisure or culture males or females can participate in becomes blurred, masculinity or femininity is expressed more in how various are performed (ie. personality) than in which activities are performed.

  • Bob Johnson

    “in fact, poor cultures can’t afford very distinct genders”
    Is it a fact? What does “poor” mean ?
    There are a very few places on this planet where small groups of people still live a materially deficient existence. Studies of these people find very distinct gender roles.
    Look around the planet. Gender roles seem well defined in virtually every culture. In recent times there has been some blurring of role assignment in European societies, but this change comes by breaking age old encrusted traditions.
    Your attempt to paint an more gender-egalitarian portriat of the past
    fails. Progress for women in the marketplace has come from recognizing and attacking long held and accepted barriers.

  • Lord

    Why did this more egalitarian arrangement develop first in the West? More gains from cooperation within marriage? Greater economic independence or interdependence? Enhanced or reduced parental control? Religious influence?

  • jonathan

    An example is foot binding in China. Accentuates the differences. Culture works to emphasize dimorphic character.

  • Douglas Knight

    here is the paper.

    It observes the effect Phil Goetz predicts: “traditional values” are correlated with low sex differences, but it says this is independent of the wealth effect.

    I find bizarre the claim that Africa is the part of the world where men are more conscientious than women.

    Here’s a hypothesis I think is worth airing, though I don’t think it’s the answer here: the five factor model is derived from (fairly uniform) rich countries and it may not be appropriate to poor countries. eg, they may have other traits that they care about and use to display sex differences.

  • Another possibility is that the power of the media is much greater in richer nations and the media certainly reinforce gender stereotypes.

    Its an interesting article but is not by itself conclusive.

  • Let’s see what happens if we divide gender differences into possibly useful (pushing women to be nurturing and men to be stoic), probably neutral (women wear brighter colors than men), and peacock’s tail (women pushed to be extremely thin, men pushed to be extremely muscular).

    It’s plausible that poorer societies will have more practical gender distinctions. In particular, they’re less likely to push any trait to extremes.

    For example, a lot of women suffer from extreme perfectionism. It’s plausible that a poorer society would focus on doing one’s tasks well enough to get good results rather than having standards which are impossible to achieve.

  • J. Forsberg

    I think “manhood” generally really means “being a high status male”. A lot of the traits considered necessary for being a “real man” is only really possible if you’re actually near the top of the food chain. For instance, being confident and assertive for a low status man is really difficult for a low status man modulo drugs or some sort of pathology.

    Other traits considered masculine are traits relating to relative capacity for violence. Size is very important, but it seems to be in relative terms rather than absolute. It is more important that a man is bigger than other men than any specific measurement.

  • I’m struck by how the first paragraph distinguishes between societies in the past and in the present, while the second paragraph distinguishes between poor societies and rich societies. But it’s not true to say that Rich=Advanced and Poor=Backward, however easy a myth that may be. Not that I disagree with the argument of the post, though.