A Market Model of Human Personality 2: Comments

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Baron-Cohen pages on this site:
The Essential Difference (2003):

The Essential DifferenceSummaryCommentsClassismFive Brain Types

This page comments on Simon Baron-Cohen's recent book, The Essential Difference (2003). The comments link back to the summary of the work, also on this site. The book's classism and the five brain types are examined on separate pages.

1 A Victorian distinction

It turns out easy to see the distinction between the female and male type brains as an update on the contrast, applied in Victorian times to the upper classes, between the fairer sex and the coarser sex. Here's a version by Charles Darwin:

Woman seem to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness ... Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. The Descent of Man (2nd edn, 1874) [p 563]

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2 Fundamental problems

A fundamental problem with Baron-Cohen's discussion of empathy is that he gives far too little weight to the importance of culture in adult behaviour. Another major problem is that he largely ignores the consideration that females and males have presumably always interacted and that their respective psychologies must reflect that in some sort of co-evolution. Let's take a look at these two issues in turn.

The importance of culture in adult behaviour

We note elsewhere that Baron-Cohen hardly touches on female and male sexuality. In fact, a lot of his discussion is not about adults at all, but about children. He makes the assumption, totally unwarranted in the view of this site, that the behaviour of children is necessarily revelatory of the behaviour of adults. It's like Freud in reverse: Freud traced adult sexuality back to childhood; Baron-Cohen traces the behaviour of children forward to adulthood.

The view on this site is that culture plays an immense role in adult behaviour. It is a view developed over the last thirty years in the light of the rapid changes in adult behaviour in the UK that have occurred in that time. Most relevant in relation to The Essential Difference is the matter of ongoing changes in adult female behaviour. It seems as though women are behaving more like men every day: changes that cannot be explained other than in cultural terms.

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Psychological co-evolution

The only significant consideration Baron-Cohen gives to the issue of psychological interaction between the sexes at the evolutionary level is in his chapter on the evolution of brain types, where he has a paragraph on the evolutionary advantage of women being able to read men's minds. He speculates that such a skill will have enabled women to spot the possibility of aggression on the part of their male partners and also allowed them to spot potential mating partners more likely to treat them well in the first place.

In fact, there is a certain problematical circularity here that Baron-Cohen does not mention. If women have an evolutionarily acquired skill to pick males who are likely to treat them right, how come men are still treating women so badly, requiring the latter to have the ability to spot the early warning signs of aggression in the former? You would have thought that, if over the millenia, women have tended on the whole to be successful in choosing partners who will treat them well, then male aggression against their female partners would have abated by now, the female friendly males having been more successful at passing on their genes.

Do we have to say that male against female partner aggression was so appalling in the dawn of humanity that it has taken till now for female mating choices to get it down to present levels? Another possibility would be that Baron-Cohen is wrong, that women aren't able to read men after all.

Alternatively, we might wonder why, if human femalesability to detect the possibility of male aggression against them is an evolutionarily acquired characteristic, human males have not evolved the ability to disguise the signals of their potential aggression. Either way, we might wonder about the evolutionary meaning of male anti-female aggression in the first place. After all, any characteristic must have some kind of evolutionary logic behind it which we can establish if we dig deep enough. Do we suppose that male anti-female aggression has had a vital function at some stage of specifically human development or that it is some kind of non-functional vestige of our primate or even earlier past?

Of course, this site favours the view that adult male against adult female aggression is a cultural phenomenon, usually connected with alcohol and the like, in fact: as is adult male aggression generally.

Other issues come to mind. For one thing, not only does Baron-Cohen ignore the circularity question, but he does not consider any other possible interaction between female psychology and male aggression. For example, he does not deal with the possibility that female psychology may tend to encourage male against male aggression, as in women taunting men with white feathers during World War I or women living in violent environments choosing partners capable of protecting them and their offspring.

Similarly, Baron-Cohen assumes that status seeking is an evolutionarily acquired characteristic, but greatly underplays its importance to women as compared to men. Not only is there the matter of females choosing males of high status in the first place, but of them working to enhance the status of the partner afterwards, for their own benefit (including giving them a platform from which to move up to an even higher partner) and for the benefit of their children.

Coffee mornings

Thus, when the author says

Those with the female brain prefer to spend their time engaged in coffee mornings or having supper with friends [p 12],

he is cosily seeing these middle class female gatherings as opportunities for some kind of caring intimacy among the participants. However, it seems more likely they are about the display, use, acquisition and discussion of status.

Take, for example, a coffee morning of academic wives or whatever. Firstly, the women's status will be that of their husbands: professorswives will be superior to readerswives and so on. Even where husbands appear to rank equally, it will rarely be so in practice: other more subtle status conferring factors will be in play as well. Secondly, the behaviours of the women will be about on the one hand displaying current status to inferiors present and on the other hand acknowledging the status of superiors present.

There may well also be attempts by all the women to gain advantages for themselves, their husbands or families. Thus the higher status women may use their status to extract favours and the lower status women may target those capable of helping their husband's career prospects. If there do happen to be women of roughly equal status present, there will be little question of caring intimacy between them. If they interact at all, they will probably be concerned to prove themselves superior.

And always, whatever else goes on, there will be gossip, i.e. conversation that relates to the social status of people absent from the gathering, but in the same status pool as those present.

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3 Sexuality

It is an astonishing feature of the book that it is about the differences between men and women and yet the author manages to ignore the fundamental issue of differences between male and female sexuality. The nearest he gets is in his brief discussion of rape.

Here Baron-Cohen remarks [p 36] that some men may find pleasure in sex independent of any kind of meaningful relationship: with the implication that, by contrast, this is not true of any women. So, for example, sex on the first date is just an urban myth, then?

We may note also that the author finds no place for prostitution in his rosy picture of female behaviour: how very Victorian. [Back to Article]

4 Male Aggression

How male aggression fits into Baron-Cohen's scheme of things is difficult to fathom. Early in The Essential Difference, when the author refers male aggression in the context of his discussion of female empathy, there doesn't seem to be a particular problem. But later on, when we find out about his measurement of empathy and systemising, male aggression has dropped out of the picture.

Now, it's possible to imagine that an aggressive male would score low on an empathy test, but on the other hand, scoring low on an empathy test is not indicative of male aggressiveness. It turns out later in the book that what Baron-Cohen does link with low scoring on an empathy test is the autism scale. We find in the rubric of his Empathy Quotient test that an EQ of around 20 (out of 80) is associated with Asperger's Syndrome and high-functioning autism, which is obviously something entirely different from aggression.

We get the same kind of thing in relation to systemising ability. There is no more suggestion of a link between a person's Systemising Quotient and male agression than there is between Empathy Quotient and male aggression.

Aggression a cultural phenomenon

In the view of this site, adult male aggression is a cultural phenomenon. It is associated on the one hand with alcohol and other drugs; on the other hand with ideologies promoting legitimised violence and a certain image of maleness. The examples that Baron-Cohen refers to, drawing on evolutionary psychology, can be explained in those terms. [Back to Article]

5 The evolution of systemising and empathy

There seems to be a certain tenuousness about the links Baron-Cohen makes between his systemising brain and the typical evolutionary psychology view of male behaviour. We have seen elsewhere that his Systemising Quotient and male aggression are not linked and in fact the only link he ultimately claims for his SQ is with the autism spectrum. We might now ask whether the other characteristics he refers to in his discussion of the systemising brain are any more linked to his SQ than male aggression is.

One thing we can say for sure is that, among the allegedly male characteristics that Baron-Cohen discusses, the following are no more associated with the autism spectrum than is male aggression: trading, pursuit of power, social dominance, leadership.

A sociocentric view of maleness

Another certainty is that Baron-Cohen, here as elsewhere, and in typical evolutionary psychology fashion, is offering a sociocentric view of maleness. The characteristics just listed are not found in men generally, but in members of social elites like the one he as a professor belongs to. In fact, for social elites to exist, it is necessary for most men not to display such characteristics; on the contrary, it is necessary that most men accept some measure of exploitation and subservience. So statistically, those non-elite attributes might be seen as being more typically male.

Another certainty is that there is no positive association among the male characteristics Baron-Cohen discusses. Certainly, those not mention here so far - the making and use of tools, hunting and tracking, expertise, tolerating solitude - are by no means necessarily associated with trading, pursuit of power, social dominance, leadership.

In other words, what the author is lumping together as systemising ability seems in truth to be lot of different abilities unlikely all to be found equally developed in one individual male.

[Continuing] [Back to Article]

6 Normal and abnormal hurtfulness to others

It is interesting to note that Baron-Cohen seems to regard one kind of hurtfulness abnormal, but another kind not. Earlier in the book, he has presented hurtful behaviour in the context of status enhancement as a matter of course; here, in the context of expressing a point of view, it is a clinical symptom.

So for Baron-Cohen, it's a part of normal socialising to, say, target putdowns deliberately at another person in conversation, because that's in the cause of asserting your status. But if you accidentally hurt someone's feelings while offering a general opinion, that's abnormal socialising and a sign that there may be something seriously wrong with you. [Back to Article]

7 Hans Asperger

Given his particularly comprehensive acknowledgements and references sections, plus notations in the body of the text like

I rely on a wonderful woman called Traci at Trinity College for advice on how to fix my computer [p 8],

it is remarkable how completely unforthcoming Baron-Cohen is about Asperger, whose monumental idea [p 150] he says the EMB theory originally was.

Look up Hans Asperger on Yahoo UK and you immediately discover just from the first Yahoo results page that he was working in Vienna in 1944. Thus our author does not mention something that anybody with any knowledge at all of AS already knows and that anybody who starts taking an interest, thanks to the book, will immediately find out.

Is there something embarassing about Asperger's background or the circumstances of his research? [Back to Article]

8 Graphs

There is a vagueness about the graphs in The Essential Difference that contrasts with the specific detail of the rest of the academic apparatus: the 80 or so personal acknowledgements, the getting on for 600 references to sources, the details of over 450 sources.

The list of figures at the front of the book names 8 graphs. Of these, 7 turn out to be devoid of any specific statistical information, showing merely standard Napoleon's Hat curves. The 8th is different, but shows no really specific data either.

What these graphs represent in real terms is not completely clear. Thus Baron-Cohen indicates that the extreme female brain has yet to be detected, but that he estimates that it would involve about 2.5% of the population. One supposes that almost all the people with this type of brain would be female, so that would mean about 5% or 1 in 20 of females would have it. However, the fact that maybe 5% of the Napoleon's Hat curves for women is conjectural is not apparent on the relevant graph. How much of the rest of the curves is based on hard evidence is not made explicit.

Again, the 8th graph, called Figure 8 and labelled as a model, plots empathy scores and systemising scores in a highly schematic way that obscures any sense of the actual values involved. The graph seems to suggest that the EFB actually exists, though the author indicates elsewhere that its existence has yet to be detected. Similarly, it suggests that the balanced brain exists, whereas the BB is discussed in the book only briefly, in terms of ifs and mights and with no statistics or supporting learned references. [Back to Article]

9 The Systemizing Test

Social bias is obvious in the Systemizing Test reproduced as an appendix to the book. The questions reflect the expectation of a lifestyle and level of intellectual life that may be that of a Cambridge professor, his associates and their world, but not that of the average Cambridge citizen even, never mind the average UK citizen.

What is more, the very language of the questions corresponds to the sort of life style and intellectual life they assume. Certainly, the questions appear to incorporate a considerably higher reading age than the UK population average.

Structure in music

We need go no further than the very first question for a taste of the problem. You are asked about noticing how a piece of music is structured when you are listening to it. Now that would make a lot of sense to somebody like a woman I was once acquainted with, who got a first class degree at Oxford and sang madrigals in a choir there. But I don't think think it would draw a meaningful response from half the population at the very least.

For one thing, the phrase a piece of music refers surely to classical music, which most people don't listen to; for another thing, the concept of music being structured would draw a complete blank: people wouldn't know what the question was getting at.

Superstitions

The second question is even more problematic. It asks you if you adhere to common superstitions. To start with, the word adhere is going to be offputting to the majority of people. Then there is the consideration that the majority of people understand the word common not as meaning frequently encountered but as in the phrase common as muck. In fact, the question turns out to be loaded: superstitions are by definition other people's silly ideas that you are not going to recognise in yourself.

Again, a lot of people would be left pondering what actually is meant by common superstitions. Is it about believing in astrology? Or saying Bless you when somebody sneezes? Or thinking black cats are lucky? Most people would find no difficulty in answering a question about one of those things specifically, but a generalisation could be a different matter entirely.

Grammar

Just one more of the 60 questions: the thirtieth enquires if you are intrigued by grammatical rules when learning a language. We might ask how many fans pouring out of a football ground, say, would make anything of that! What a question in a country so conspicuously uninterested in learning languages! How on earth is it calculated to get inside the minds of people generally! Why, the question itself might as well be in another language.

Let's be clear that those examples are not exceptional: there are plenty more questions like them. So it's not that there are questions targeted at every level of society.

Now, as a selling point for the book, the way women's magazines have questionnaires, this Systemizing Test may be harmless enough. As survey of the psychology of academics and of their world, it may well have scientific validity. But as a source of information on human psychology generally, it seems dubious: it depends on the surely unfounded assumption that the kind of people capable of understanding the words and living the life style referred to are psychologically typical of humanity at large.

Yet we find from the reference to the questionnaire on p 84 that Baron-Cohen and his associates do indeed use it as a serious research tool. In fact, there is a reference in the questionnaire appendix to an article in a learned publication of the Royal Society in which Baron-Cohen et al apparently discuss it.

Testing for quotients

Clearly, the criticism levelled here against the Systemizing Test as being reflecting a certain social and cultural background has a familiar ring to it. It sounds like the criticism of testing for Intelligence Quotients as being socially and culturally biased.

Now I can see no objection to intelligence testing in specific situations, as long as it is understood that the results have no general meaning. For example, it seems perfectly reasonable for a software company to intelligence test potential programmer recruits if the tests are capable of revealing programming potential; but the results should not be used for other purposes. After all, that's only like a football club requiring potential signings to undergo a rigorous medical, which seems reasonable.

But the idea of testing people for some kind of generalised intelligence quotient that can be pinned to them like their blood type seems extremely dubious: for reasons that do not need to be spelled out here. The same kind of reservations would seem to apply to any type of testing for quotients that supposedly position a person relative to the whole population. [Back to Article]

10 Vermeer

The author photo on the book's jacket is of interest. Whereas those authors who choose to appear on their dust jackets are usually in monochrome, looking straight at the camera, Baron-Cohen is in colour, looking somewhat to his right at a light source outside the picture, the light catching one side of his half profile. This makes him look rather like the subject of a painting by Vermeer: as if he is in process of receiving some higher illumination, metaphorically as well as literally. [Back to Article]

11 Empathy

March 2009:

The word empathy was coined around 100 years ago to translate a German term used in aesthetics. It did not get applied to interpersonal behaviour till 50 or 60 years ago. (See for example John Ayto: 20th Century Words.)

Empathy ~ Sympathy:

The neologism was obviously modelled on sympathy, and cannot be considered independently of the earlier word: it must have acquired its modern sorts of meanings in order to denote something somewhat akin to sympathy, but nevertheless significantly different. Whereas sympathy suggested sharing the sentiment of another person, empathy suggested merely taking into account the sentiment of another person.

It has been claimed that sympathy and empathy differ in that the former is a spontaneous response whereas the latter is learned. Also, that in sympathy, there is always altruism, whereas in empathy this may not be the case: the effort to empathise with the other may have a selfish end in view. (See http://cogprints.org/620/0/Empathy.html).

I can certainly believe that empathy as originally used in discussions of interpersonal relations was something to be learned: as in social workers in training being encouraged to relate objectively to their clients rather subjectively, to empathise with their problems rather to show sympathy or indeed antipathy. Also, there is no doubt that salesmen in training may be encouraged to empathise with potential buyers in order to be able to make more sales.

Instinctive not Learned:

Of course, the meanings of words may change over time and empathy may nowadays be used as more or less as a synomym of sympathy. What we need to appreciate here is what Baron-Cohen is doing with the word: along with any others who may share his usage.

He is effectively claiming that empathy is not something people need to learn in order to deal more effectively with others: rather that it is a normal human response, that those who do not display it instinctively have some kind of personality disorder.

Sociocentrism:

I find it outrageous that such a fundamental claim is being made here by stealth, without a shred of serious evidence to back it up. To justify the claim, Baron-Cohen would need to demonstrate that most people display empathy, however defined, in their dealings with others: as instinctively as they breathe. He does not do this. Indeed, I suggest he could not do so.

Of course, we are looking here at an example of sociocentrism. Empathy helps in professional life generally and in the caring professions in particular. So Baron-Cohen raises it from being a middle class desideratum of the last 50 years to being a basic human instinct, the absence of which means you have a personality disorder. His particular definition does not alter that.

Female and Male:

Again, we should not be confused by Baron-Cohen's distinction between female and male: his claim that the female brain is hard-wired predominantly for empathy, whereas the male brain is not. Firstly, his anecdotal trivia is not a credible demonstration for this claim. Secondly, even if the claim could be proved, it would not change things. For it would simply mean that empathy is a characteristic of females. In that case, it would be ridiculous to suggest that there is something wrong with men who don't have it: like saying they are abnormal because they don't have female sex organs. And let's be clear here: in linking autism with his alleged extreme male brain, Baron-Cohen is arguing that the absence of empathy is abnormal.

Note that none of this is to argue that autism and Asperger's Syndrome do not exist. It's simply that their determination cannot rest on an absence of empathy, unless its presence in the vast majority of people can be demonstrated. [Back to Article]

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(c) John C Durham, 2003 - 2004

Baron-Cohen pages on this site:
The Essential Difference (2003):

The Essential DifferenceSummaryCommentsClassismFive Brain Types