Sex Differences in Personality

We begin by examining sex dif ferences in temperament in children. The five-facto model of personality, discussed in detail in Chapter 3, provides a convenient framework for or ganizing a number of otherwise scattered findings about sex di ferences in personality (see T able 16.1). We examine sex dif ferences in the personality characteristics that are subsumed by the five-factor model. Then we will move on to discuss sex dif ferences in other domains of personality—such as sexuality , criminality and physical aggression, depression and psychopathy , and the interaction patterns of men and women in groups.

Temperament in Children

The importance of sex differences in temperament is aptly summarized by the authors of a recent meta-analysis: "The question of gender dif ferences in temperament is arguably one of the most fundamental questions in gender dif ferences research in the areas of personality and social behavior. Temperament reflects biologically based emo tional and behavioral consistencies that appear early in life and predict—often in conjunction with other factors—patterns and outcomes in numerous other domains such as psychopathology and personality" (Else-Quest, Hyde, Goldsmith, & Van Hulle, 2006, p. 33). These authors conducted the most massive meta-analysis ever undertaken of sex dif ferences in temperament in children ranging in age from 3 to 13.

The sex dif ferences they discovered ranged from substantial to negligible. Inhibitory control showed the lar gest sex dif ference, with ad = —.41, which is considered in the moderate range. Inhibitory control refers to the ability to control

Table 16.1 Effect Sizes for Sex Differences in Personality:

The Five-Factor Model


Effect Size
















Emotional Stability








Note: Positive numbers mean men tend to score higher than women, and negative numbers mean women tend to score higher than men.

Adapted from Feingold, 1994.

Note: Positive numbers mean men tend to score higher than women, and negative numbers mean women tend to score higher than men.

Adapted from Feingold, 1994.

inappropriate responses or behaviors. As the authors summarize, "these findings ma represent an overall better ability of girls to regulate or allocate their attention" and suppress socially undesirable behavior (Else-Quest et al., 2006, p. 61). Perceptual sensitivity—the ability to detect subtle stimuli from the environment—also showed a sex difference favoring girls ( d = - .38). Girls, on average, appear to be more sensitive than boys to subtle and low-intensity signals from their external worlds. Inhibitory control is related to the latter development of the personality trait of conscientiousness. Interestingly, the sex dif ference appears to fade, since adult men and women do not dif fer much in conscientiousness.

Surgency, a cluster including approach behavior , high activity, and impulsivity, showed the next largest sex difference (d = + .38), with boys scoring higher than girls. Perhaps the combination of high sur gency and low inhibitory control accounts for the fact that boys tend to get into more disciplinary dif ficulties in school in the early year of their lives. Some subcomponents of sur gency showed slightly smaller sex differences, such as activity level ( d = + .33) and high-intensity pleasure ( d = + .30), which is consistent with the finding that boys are more likely than girls to engage i rough-and-tumble play.

Perhaps the combination of low inhibitory control and high sur gency accounts for another reliable gender dif ference—a difference in the domain of physical aggr essiveness. Using an act frequency measure based on codings of actual behavior, Zakriski, Wright, and Underwood (2005) found ad = +.60, indicating that boys were more physically aggressive than girls (approximate age 13). The contexts in which this sex dif ference emerged, however, were quite specific leading the authors to suggest that "gender dif ferences in personality can be conceptualized as patterns of social adaptation that are complex and context-specific (Zakriski et al., 2005, p. 844).

In contrast to inhibitory control and sur gency, girls and boys showed virtually no difference in a variable called negative affectivity, which includes components such as anger, difficult , amount of distress, and sadness. The only minor exception to this overall gender similarity occurred for the subcomponent of fearfulness ( d = - .12), with girls being slightly more fearful than boys. This general lack of gender dif fer-ence in negative af fectivity is interesting, in that it is closely connected with emotional instability, which does show a moderate sex dif ference in adulthood (see next section on the five-factor model). Else-Quest and her colleagues speculate that gen der stereotypes—beliefs that females are more emotional than males—may lead to the actual development of the gender dif ference in adulthood, given the negligible gender difference among children (Else-Quest et al., 2006).

In summary, meta-analysis of temperament in children between the ages of 3 and 13 suggest two gender dif ferences of moderate magnitude. Girls show more inhibitory control and boys show higher levels of sur gency. These are average sex differences, however , which means that the distributions overlap considerably . Contrary to gender stereotypes, there is little evidence that girls are more emotional than boys during this age range.

Five-Factor Model

As you may recall from Chapter 3, many personality psychologists ar gue for a taxonomy of personality that contains five fundamental factors. Therefore, the five-facto model provides a broad set of personality traits within which we can examine whether women and men dif fer.


Three facets of extraversion have been examined for sex dif ferences—gregariousness, assertiveness, and activity. Women score slightly higher on gregariousness than men, but the dif ference is quite small. Similarly, men score very slightly higher on activity level. A recent study of personality in 50 dif ferent cultures revealed a relatively small gender dif ference ( d = +. 15) on extraversion (McCrae et al., 2005b). The only subscale of extraversion to show a substantial sex difference is assertiveness, with men scoring moderately higher than women. A related finding, eme ging from a study of 127 samples in 70 countries ( N = 77,528), is that men place a greater importance on the value of power than do women (Schwartz & Rubel, 2005). That is, men tend to value social status and dominance over other people more than women.

The medium-size sex dif ference in assertiveness (d = 0.50) may show up in social behavior in group contexts. A number of studies suggest that men interrupt others in conversation more than women do in a mixed-sex group (Hoyenga & Hoyenga, 1993). An important source of conflict between the sexes—unwanted inter ruptions of dialogue—may stem from this moderate sex dif ference in assertiveness.


A study of 50 cultures revealed a small to medium gender dif ference (d = -.32) on agreeableness, indicating that women score higher than men (McCrae et al., 2005b). Two facets of agreeableness have been examined—trust and tender-mindedness. Trust is the proclivity to cooperate with others, giving others the benefit of the doubt, an viewing one's fellow human beings as basically good at heart. Tender-mindedness is a nurturant proclivity—having empathy for others and being sympathetic with those who are downtrodden. As you can see in T able 16.1, women score as more trusting than men. In contrast, women are substantially more tender -minded than men, with a large effect size of - .97, which is clearly well in the range considered to be lar ge.

Another finding closely related to agreeableness pertains to smiling behavior. Meta-analyses of smiling show that women smile more often than men, with an ef fect size of -.60 (Hall, 1984). To the degree that smiling reflects an agreeable personal ity disposition, we can conclude that women are more agreeable than men. However , some researchers view smiling as a sign of submissiveness rather than agreeableness (Eagly, 1995). Furthermore, some ar gue that it is low-status people who do a lot of smiling. If this is correct, then smiling may be more a reflection of low status tha of agreeableness.


Aggressiveness falls at the opposite end of agreeableness. It will probably not surprise you to find out that men are more physically aggressive than women. This shows up in personality tests, in aggressive fantasies, and in actual measures of behavior (Hyde, 1986). In general, the effect sizes for aggression are largest for projective tests, such as the TAT (d = .86), the next lar gest for peer report measures of aggression (d = .63), and the smallest for self-report measures of aggression ( d = .40). Fantasy

Studies show that women naturally smile more than men. Researchers disagree, however, on what this sex difference means; some suggest smiling is a sign of agreeableness while others hold that smiling is a form of submissiveness or a way to ease tension in social situations.

14 18 2 2 28 33 38 43 48 53 58 63 Age of offender

Figure 16.2

Arrest rates for violent crime in the United States as a function of age and gender.

14 18 2 2 28 33 38 43 48 53 58 63 Age of offender

Figure 16.2

Arrest rates for violent crime in the United States as a function of age and gender.

measures of aggression, which assess how often men and women imagine showing aggression against others, show lar ge sex differences, with an ef fect size of .84.

These sex dif ferences can have profound consequences for everyday life. The effect size for violent crimes is especially striking. Worldwide, men commit roughly 90 percent of all homicides, and most of the victims of these homicides are other men (Daly & Wilson, 1988). Furthermore, men commit more violent crimes of all sorts, ranging from assaults to gang wars. Figure 16.2 shows the arrest rate for violent crimes within the United States as a function of age and gender . As you can see, men commit these crimes far more than women. Interestingly , the lar gest sex dif ferences in violent crimes show up just after puberty , peaking in adolescence and the early twenties. After age 50, violent crimes of all sorts start to decline, and men and women become much more similar to each other in terms of criminal aggressiveness.

These findings are not limited to the United States. In all cultures for whic there are data, the vast majority of killings and other violent crimes are committed by young men (Daly & Wilson, 1988). These findings lend credence to theories tha offer evolutionary explanations for some of the sex dif ferences.


The 50-culture study revealed a negligible sex difference (d = -.14) on overall levels of conscientiousness (McCrae et al., 2005b). Only one facet of conscientiousness has been scrutinized for sex dif ferences—order. Women score slightly higher than men on order, with an effect size of only - .13. This is small enough to conclude that men and women are essentially the same on this dimension. Nonetheless, even very small effects can sometimes have lar ge cumulative effects over time. For example, a small difference in order between marriage partners may result in a lar ge number of ar gu-ments about housecleaning over the course of a year .

Emotional Stability

Emotional stability may be the most value-laden dimension of the five-factor model As you will recall from Chapter 3, at one end of the dimension are those who are steady, calm, and stable. One can label this end "emotionally stable," as many have done. But psychologists could also just as easily have labeled this end of the dimension "emotionally constricted." The opposite end is characterized by volatility and changeability of mood. Although many have labeled this end of the dimension "emotionally unstable" or "neurotic," one could just as easily label it as "emotionally expressive." The important point to keep in mind is the psychological meaning of the dimension—the actual traits it includes—rather than the label given to either extreme.

The 50-culture study revealed that emotional stability shows the lar gest sex difference (d = - .49) in the five-factor model, indicating that women are moderatel lower than men on this dimension (McCrae et al., 2005b). A study of 10 Arab countries—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Oman, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (Nablus and Gaza), Jordan, and Iraq—found similar sex dif ferences using a measure of anxiety, although effect sizes were not reported (Abdel-Khalek & Alansari, 2004). Two aspects of emotional stability have been examined in meta-analyses of sex differences—anxiety and impulsiveness. Men and women are virtually identical on impulsiveness, with a tiny ef fect size of .06. In contrast, women score higher on anxiety than men, with a small ef fect size of -.28. Thus, men and women dif fer in levels of anxiety, but the magnitude is properly considered to be just slightly greater than small. This difference may show up in such behaviors as women' s slightly greater fear of spiders or snakes.

Openness to Experience

The 50-culture study revealed essentially no sex dif ferences (d = - .07 ) in openness to experience (McCrae et al., 2005b). The facet of openness that has been examined via meta-analysis is the facet labeled ideas, which refers to the range of thoughts or concepts a person entertains. Men and women are virtually identical on this dimension, with an ef fect size of .03. A recent study verifies this lack of a sex di ference. Botwin et al. (1997) examined sex dif ferences in openness to experience using three data sources—self-report, spouse-report, and independent interviewer reports (one male and one female interviewer). Separate analyses of these three data sources yielded no sex dif ferences in openness-intellect. Thus, it seems safe to conclude that men and women are identical on this dimension of personality .

Basic Emotions: Frequency and Intensity

Emotions are central to personality , so much so that we devoted an entire chapter to them (Chapter 13). Recent research conducted on a cross-cultural scale has revealed precisely where the sexes dif fer in their experiences of emotions and where the sexes are essentially the same. The most extensive study examined 2,199 Australians and an international sample of 6,868 participants drawn from 41 dif ferent countries (Brebner, 2003). Eight fundamental emotions were examined, four "positive" emotions (Affection, Joy, Contentment, Pride) and four "negative" emotions (Fear, Anger, Sadness, Guilt). Participants used rating scales to indicate (1) how frequently they experienced each emotion and (2) the intensity with which they experienced each emotion. The basic findings are summarized in able 16.2.

As shown in Table 16.2, there are small, but statistically significant di ferences in the experience of emotions in this international sample. All point to women experiencing both positive emotions and negative emotions more frequently and intensely than do men. In the positive domain, affection and joy show the largest sex differences. Pride, in contrast, shows no sex dif ference in either frequency or intensity . In the negative domain, women experience fear and sadness more than men, especially in the reported intensity of the experience. Guilt, in contrast, shows a minimal sex dif ference in intensity and no sex dif ference in frequency—perhaps contradicting the stereotype that women are more guilt-prone than men. These results must be qualified in two ways First, the ef fect sizes are generally small and should be interpreted in that light. Second, other research has documented that more specialized explorations of emotions reveal some reversals of these sex dif ferences, such as men experiencing more intense jealousy in response to the sexual infidelity of a partner (see Chapter 8)

Table 16.2 Sex Differences in Experience of Emotions




Positive Emotions















Negative Emotions















Note: Entries in the table are effect sizes (d). The designation "ns" indicates that the sex difference was not significant. Positive values indicate that women report experiencing the emotion more frequently or intensely than do men. Source: Brebner (2003).

Note: Entries in the table are effect sizes (d). The designation "ns" indicates that the sex difference was not significant. Positive values indicate that women report experiencing the emotion more frequently or intensely than do men. Source: Brebner (2003).

It is interesting to note that one of the most common complaints that women express about men is that they don' t express their emotions enough (Buss, 2003). Men, in contrast, often complain that women are too emotional. The recent international results point to one possible reason for these complaints—perhaps men don' t express their emotions because they literally don' t experience emotions as frequently or as intensely as do women. Knowledge of the actual sex dif ferences in emotional experience may take men and women one step closer to understanding each other and perhaps ultimately help to reduce conflict between the sexes

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