September 27, 2007

Gender-role resentment and Rorschach-blot news reports

Yesterday, the New York Times opened up its web site to comments on David Leonhardt's article "He's Happier, She's Less So", which explained that "two new research papers, using very different methods" both concluded that "there appears to be a growing happiness gap between men and women".  I posted about this article ("The 'happiness gap' and the rhetoric of statistics") because I've become interested in the rhetorical strategies of science journalism.

In this case, there's another variable: clever marketing. A reader asked this morning, "does the NYT strike you as particularly fond of edgy young economists doing edgy young things?" If so, it's because they know their market. Leonhardt's article got 700 comments in some 20 hours, before they closed the door to more.

I haven't read the whole list, but you don't have to go far into it to realize that essentially the entire readership of the NYT fell for the characteristic journalistic misrepresentation that I identified: "turning small differences in group distributions into categorical statements about group properties".

And you don't have to read all 700 comments to realize that there are a lot of unhappy people out there.

Here's a sample from the first couple of dozen:

Men are dogs. Dogs are happy. Voila.
I agree with the most likely explanation noted namely that women now have more to excel at and on the other hand fail at.
For women, it's all in the details. For men, not so much. It's time to follow the lead of the GM workers and go out on strike.
As soon as I read "What has changed..." I knew that the 'explanation' was the female juggle.
It's because many of the gains for equality for women in the job markets made in the 70's and 80's have been eroded away by the Bush Administration.
We're less happy because we're tired. [...] It's too much. I'm ready to crash and burn.
In the '70's, women thought there was a chance at finally having an intellectually stimulating career, without sacrificing having a family. 30 years later, we are struggling with the rigidity of our culture that continues to make that unattainable. takes nothing more than a shiny object or a breast to make men happy. They really are shallow, lazy, morons.
Women are presented with impossible aspirational models. Men, in my opinion, are less reflective.
Men appear happier now because behind every happy man is a good woman giving her life to make him that way. They have everything they had in the 1970s plus their wife's second income.
All of the talents and skills that most women are naturally good at (being a good friend, supporting their communities, managing a household and raising children), have been devalued by our society. Instead we are supposed to go into the workplace and act like men - what a waste.

The comments over at are drawn from a different distribution -- of equally unhappy people, who were equally eager to swallow Leonhardt's misrepresentations hook, line and sinker:

Oh boo hoo! Feminists made their bed, now they have to lie in it alone with their cats.
Duh, we get Halo, and you get periods.
Men are getting smarter and aren't handing over every penny they make to a pretty face. This makes woman sad.
no shit, work sucks...welcome to what men have been putting up with for hundreds of years
So can we now finally cut the crap that being a housewife is just as hard as holding a traditional job?
Internet (read:porn) caused this. We don't need women anymore.
It is because women wanted to go to work, like a kid wants a toy lawnmower after watching his dad mow the lawn. Now that they have to work they realise it sucks so they are sad.

OK, everybody, take a deep breath and listen: THERE IS NO HAPPINESS GAP!

Every year since 1972, the General Social Survey has been asking a big demographically-balanced sample of American men and women "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Are you a) very happy, b) pretty happy, c) not too happy."

Neither in 1972 nor in 2006 was there any statistically significant difference between men and women in the distribution of their responses! And in both 1972 and 2006, the proportion of women who said "very happy" was a little bit higher than the proportion of men who gave that response (though again, in neither year was the difference distinguishable from chance fluctuations).

So what is everyone talking about? Well, some economists fit a complicated statistical model (called an "ordered probit") to the whole sequence of survey results from 1972 to 2006, and this analysis suggests that women have become a little tiny bit less happy relative to men over that whole time period. But the effect is so small that you can't actually see it in the statistical analysis for any one year; the effect is much smaller than the amount of year-to-year jiggle. That's true even through the General Social Survey involves a huge sample, much bigger than is normally used for opinion polls: 4,500 people in 2006.

And then there's some as-yet-unpublished stuff about how the amount of time per week that men say they spend in activities that they find unpleasant has decreased by about 3.6% over the past 40 years, whereas the amount of time that women report spending on unpleasant activities has remained about the same. Since the data remains unpublished, it's hard to know what to make of this, but I'm betting that the between-group change is minuscule relative to the within-group variation, just as in the GSS analysis. If you want to read more about the research, check out this post and the link therein. For now, I'll just reproduce the crucial graph of GSS responses over time:

So look: you can stop trying to explain the happiness gap, because there's nothing much there to explain, at least about differences between men and women.

This doesn't invalidate the struggle of people juggling work and family and friends and sex and everything, or the concerns about (un)changing gender roles -- but we should be able to talk about those things without projecting them onto marginal social-science analyses showing possible differences between groups and across time that are at best a small fraction of the within-group variation.

Still, it does look to me like there are some gaps worth commenting on here.

There's the gap between the people who comment on the NYT web site and the people who comment on

There's the gap between female resentment of men and male resentment of women, at least as seen in the fraction of the population who felt moved to comment in various forums on this article.

And most important, there's the gap between what you read in the papers and the truth.

[Today (Sept. 28, 2007) Leonhardt's parable has moved up to the #1 "most emailed" slot on the NYT web site. And the story has been picked up by the TV networks and other media outlets. ]

[More here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 27, 2007 04:30 PM