November 05, 2007

Of mice and men and women: news from the fifth estate

This is Wikipedia quoting Jeffrey Archer quoting Edmund Burke:

"In May 1789, Louis XVI summoned to Versailles a full meeting of the 'Estates General'. The First Estate consisted of three hundred clergy. The Second Estate, three hundred nobles. The Third Estate, six hundred commoners. Some years later, after the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, looking up at the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, said, 'Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.'"

The clergy and the nobility have been replaced, I suppose, by the scientists and the politicians. Or perhaps the religious right and the corporate lobbyists. Or some other groups -- social categories are not so easy to differentiate and enumerate these days.

But there's one group whose influence is hardly ever discussed, although they may have more cultural and political impact than the scientists and the press combined. I mean, of course, the consultants.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, when Josh Jensen sent me a link to an article about Deloitte & Touche's use of the TrendSight Group to teach its employees how to "approach women clients differently from men" (Erin White, "Deloitte Tries a Different Sales Pitch for Women", WSJ 10/8/2007).

Body language differs by gender. Men tend to stare as they listen and nod to signify they understand. Women may nod when they don't yet understand to encourage the speaker to keep talking. And while consultants often seat themselves beside a male client as their "right hand man," women are more comfortable seated face to face.

Since Deloitte is itself in the consulting business, this makes TrendSight into meta-consultants, in effect teaching theology in the seminaries. And press coverage also helps to spread the gospel. Thus the WSJ article was picked up by the influential radio evangelist Albert Mohler:

... every husband to whom I have shown this had what amounts to a communication Great Discovery. ...

Ahhh . . . so when she nods it means something different? This is useful.

TrendSight's web site claims that their GenderTrends™ product is scientifically based:

It's no secret that men and women have different communication and decision making styles as well as different priorities and preferences. The TrendSight Group bases their strategic insights on leveraging these differences. Our research methodology and proprietary marketing models are based on science, not stereotypes. We combine gender expertise and multi-industry experience to help companies build sales and share and improve recruiting and retention effectiveness with women.

Since I'm interested in human communication, I was struck by the claim about sex differences in the use of head nods. Yesterday, I happened to be talking with Jens Allwood, who has put a lot of effort into looking across cultures at things like this. He didn't recall any relevant research on sex differences in nod function, and he expressed some skepticism that he would find a large male/female difference in head-nod function if he looked for it, in the many video recordings of conversations that he and his colleagues have coded for exactly these sorts of gestures.

I hope that Jens will look into this. As I pointed out to him, pseudo-science is beneficial to scientists in a a certain way, because negative results that would not otherwise have much interest (say, that men and women use about the same number of word per day, on average) can become worthy of publication. (If you know of any research on sex differences in the function of head-nodding in contemporary American culture, please tell me. Of course, there are well-established cultural differences in the signals that manage or comment on interpersonal interactions, and no doubt head nods are subject to such differences as well. The question at hand is whether in contemporary American business settings, men tend to use head nods to mean "I understand, go on" while women tend to use them to mean simply "go on".)

I didn't find any references to empirical studies of sex differences in communication on the TrendSights web site, but I did find a "speaking demo" featuring the company's leader, Marti Barletta. I thought that this presentation was an especially nice example of the rhetoric of an increasingly-common kind of contemporary gender-difference ideology, so I've transcribed a characteristic passage:

When we're talking in a personal setting or in a social setting, everybody'll pretty much give you men and women are- Are men and women different? Oh you betcha, of course, they're very different.
But when you talk in a business setting,
sometimes people are a little bit
careful about it, you know, there's been a lot of energy
over the last twenty or thirty years --
including by women like myself --
over the proposition that men and women are NOT different.
And then they did this human genome- or they did these genome sequencing projects,
and they found out that actually mice and human beings share
ninety five percent identical D.N.A.
Ninety five percent identical!
And I'm looking at this two different organisms, and I'm thinking to myself, well OK, if I've got to work with this, they've both got two eyes, and two ears, and
heart-lung system, breath- carbon-breathing organisms.
I guess I can see they do have a lot more in common than I thought.
But you're telling me
that the difference in the size, and the fur, and the ears, the- the brain power,
all of that is due to five percent difference in D.N.A.?
And I think it might be kind of like that with men and women as well.
I think men and women may actually be ninety five percent identical.
But boy that last five percent makes a big difference.
And the point of this whole thing is,
we're different.
Men do things one way,
women do things a different way,
it doesn't mean one way is better than another way.

Fair enough, right?

But when we pay someone to give us "scientifically-based" insight into what those differences are -- and the money that Deloitte pays TrendSights comes from Deloitte's customers, and thus indirectly from all of us to one extent or another -- it would be nice if they had something to back up their assertions besides analogies to the differences in DNA between humans and other "carbon-breathing organisms" such as mice.

[Update -- Stalina Villareal has pointed me to Marie Helweg-Larsen et al., " To nod or not to nod: an observational study of nonverbal communication and status in female and male college students", Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(4): 358-361, 2005. The abstract:

Gender studies show that women and men communicate using different styles, but may use either gender style if there are situational status differences. Considering the universal gesture of head nodding as a submissive form of expression, this study investigated head nodding by observing female and male college students in positions of subordinate and equal status. We observed head nodding (N= 452) in classroom interactions between professor-student and student-student dyads. Overall, women nodded more than men and students nodded more to professors speaking than peers speaking. In addition, female and male students nodded equally to professors speaking, but men nodded less to peers speaking than did women. Thus, both men and women attended to the status and not the gender of the speaker. Future research using varying contexts should further examine the effects of dominance, context, and gender.

One striking effect not mentioned in the abstract (perhaps because it did not accord with the authors' preconceptions) was that male students nodded more than twice as often to female peers as they did to male peers (in 19 of 57 opportunities, or 18%, compared to 2 of 30 opportunities, or 7%).

This study didn't try to determine the function of individual nods -- but the fact that male and female students nodded about equally often while professors were speaking makes it seem unlikely that the males generally meant "I understand, go on" while the females generally meant only "go on". (For example, male students nodded 57% of the time while male professors were speaking, while female students nodded 61% of the time.) If the TrendSight theory about the gendered function of nods were true (that men nod "to signify that they understand" while women "nod when they don't yet understand to encourage the speaker to keep talking"), this would imply that the male students understood what was being said much more quickly than the female students did. This seems very unlikely to have been true. ]

[Update #2 -- In Barletta's book Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach, and Increase Your Share of the World's Largest Market Segment, which is kind enough to let me search online, she tells a somewhat different story about the gender difference in head-nod meaning (p. 186):

For men, head nods mean agreement: the listener agrees with the speaker. For women, though, head nods are how they encourage participation; they mean "go on" rather than "yes, I buy what you're saying".

There are at least three quite distinct messages under discussion here: (1) "I'm interested, please go on"; (2) "I understand"; and (3) "I agree".

In the WSJ piece, Barletta is quoted as saying that women's head nods "may" mean (1) while men's nods "tend to" mean (2). In the book, she says (much more categorically) that men's nods mean (3) while women's mean (1). No references are cited to support this assertion.

It's worth noting that in this book, Barletta pledges allegiance to the new biologism (p. 21):

What makes a woman a woman? Is it "sugar and spice and everything nice" with some maturity thrown in for good measure? Actually, it's more like chromosomes, hormones, and brains. In reality, the deciding factors are far more related to proven evolutionary and biological factors than they are to fairy tales, myths, or stereotypes.

There's another dozen pages of pop biology after that. Here's a characteristic sample (p. 23), illustrating the carelessness with which such popularizers turn facts into factoids:

Headline: "Brainy sons owe intelligence to their mothers." It turns out that the primary genes for intelligence, all eight of them, reside on the X chromosome. Men get one X chromosome from their mothers, whereas women get two Xs, one from Mom and one from Dad. So, while women's intelligence is a composite of both parents' "smarts,", men get all their intelligence from their mother.

There's a footnote: Gillian Turner, "Intelligence and the X chromosome," The Lancet 347, No. 9018 (20 June 1996), pp. 1814-15. Cited on, revised by Clifford Morris, 16 July 2000.

That page on Clifford Morris's web site seems to have been removed -- though it was once there, since he links to it. So let's look at the original article -- I've posted a copy here for purposes of criticism and discussion.

If you read it, you'll discover that Turner does not say that "the primary genes for intelligence, all eight of them, reside on the X chromosome". Rather, she says this:

In primary or non-specific X-linked mental retardation (XLMR) ... eight discrete localisations have emerged, which define the lowest limit of the number of genes involved. They extend over the short and long arm of the X chromosome. The genes themselves are not sequenced and their individual functions are unknown.

These are not "the primary genes for intelligence" -- rather, they are the regions affected by "non-specific X-linked mental retardation", which by definition must involve the X chromosome.

Turner does believe that this indicates a special role for the X chromosome in the genetics of "intelligence", but she cites the fact that

Morton's counterargument was that there were a calculated 325 recessively inherited genes associated with mental retardation. Therefore by calculating total DNA content of all the chromosomes the contribution of the X chromosome should be 17 genes.

There's further back-and-forth in the subsequent literature about the relative importance of the X chromosome in mental retardation -- thus Jamel Chelly et al., "Genetics and pathophysiology of mental retardation", European Journal of Human Genetics 14:701-713 2006.

Affecting 1-3% of the population and resulting from extraordinary heterogeneous environmental, chromosomal and monogenic causes, MR represents one of the most difficult challenges faced today by clinician and geneticists. Detailed analysis of the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man database and literature searches revealed more than a thousand entries for MR, and more than 290 genes involved in clinical phenotypes or syndromes, metabolic or neurological disorders characterized by MR. We estimate that many more MR genes remain to be identified.

... For monogenic causes, genes have mainly been found on the X chromosome than on any other comparable segment of the autosomes. This is partially related to the greater ease in pointing out X-linked genetic disorders (including those characterized by MR) and in identifying the corresponding genes and mutations involved. ... However, recent molecular studies, in combination with clinical follow-up of a large cohort of patients, are suggesting that the proportion of monogenic XLMR in sporadic MR males would account at best for 8-10% of the genetic causes of MR.

So Barletta's factoid about "the primary genes for intelligence, all eight of them" is clearly a wild exaggeration of a misreading of a controversial claim -- all too typical of the "science" that is advanced to support this ideology.

In the case of her factoid about the gendered meaning of head nods, it remains to be seen whether it is grounded in some empirical research, or spun up out of a misreading of some research, or simply made up out of thin air. At the moment, my money would go on the third option.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 5, 2007 10:12 AM