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Gender and the Tail End of the Personality Distribution

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

We recently released a free, interactive tool that lets you explore gender differences in personality based on data we analyzed on self-reported personality of 15,000 people in the U.S. In this blog post, we explore one interesting aspect of the results: how do men and women differ at the extreme ends of personality traits?

Let's take a look at the frequency distribution of a single personality trait, broken down by gender.

The chart below shows (on the vertical axis) the relative frequency of Compassion scores for males and females. As the horizontal axis shows, these range from -3 (least compassionate) on the left to +3 (most compassionate) on the right. The height of the blue line shows the frequency with which males have a given Compassion score, and the height of the red line shows the frequency with which females have a given Compassion score.

The average Compassion scores for males (1.4) and females (2.0) are shown in the blue and red circles.

Frequency of Different Compassion Scores for Males and Females

As you can see in the chart above, most males and females report being quite compassionate, with a score in the range of 1.5 to 3.0 (as indicated by the elevated blue and red lines in this score range). Males and females are about equally likely to have a compassion score of 1.5 (i.e. near the point where the red and blue lines meet), as shown by the nearly equal heights of the red and blue lines at this score.

However, the height of the red line is higher than the blue line once you get to a compassion score of 2.0 or higher. That means there are more females than males with compassion scores greater than 2.0. We also see that there are fewer females than males with scores less than 0.5 (since the red line is below the blue line in that region).

Can you predict gender from answers to personality questions for people in the U.S.?

The question of whether you can predict gender from compassion is a bit complicated.

You'll notice (in the chart above) that while many men and women have scores in the range of 1.5 to 2.0, at the very highest end of being compassionate (a score of 3.0) there are about twice as many women. Even more dramatically, while very few people report themselves as being highly uncompassionate (with scores in the range of -1.5 to -3.0), nearly all of the people that do are men!

Imagine that you know the compassion scores of 100 people. The compassion scores alone would not allow you to guess with any reasonable level of accuracy who was male vs. female. This is because of the big overlap in the frequency of different compassion scores (especially in the range of 1.0 to 2.0) for men and women.

However, if you knew for a fact that a person had an extremely high compassion score (a score of 3), your guess that they are female would be about twice as likely to be true than if you guessed male. Likewise, if you knew that a person had a very low compassion score (e.g. -1.5 or lower) you would almost certainly be right if you guessed they are male!

And yet... there is only a small difference on average between male and female compassion scores.

So that means if you randomly pick a male and a female in the U.S. chances are they won't differ that much in their compassion. But when you only consider the most extreme outliers (i.e. people who are extremely compassionate or who very much lack compassion) you get a much more gendered result.

Okay... but if the average levels of compassion for men and women aren't that different, we might wonder why so many people believe that women are much more compassionate.

An intriguing visualization exercise

Before we continue, let's do a quick exercise.

Step 1: Imagine an extremely unselfish, forgiving, compassionate person who has helped numerous people. Actually, take a moment now to visualize that person. Picture their face in your mind.

Step 2: Imagine an extremely selfish, angry, uncompassionate person who has caused harm to numerous people. Actually, take a moment now to visualize that person. Picture their face in your mind.

Did you think of a male or female when you visualized the selfish, angry, uncompassionate person? Did you think of a male or female when you visualized the unselfish, forgiving, compassionate person?

In a study we conducted regarding the visualization tasks we just asked you to do, people were 2.2x more likely to report having visualized a woman for the "extremely unselfish, forgiving, compassionate" person than for the "extremely selfish, angry, uncompassionate person".

What might be going on here?

Although it is rare to find someone with extremely high or extremely low compassion scores (most people are closer to the average), you've learned that in our data:

  • The few people with extremely low compassion scores tend to be men.

  • The few people with extremely high compassion scores tend to be women.

Since it seems from the data that extreme lack of compassion is much more likely in males, and extreme compassion is much more likely in females, perhaps our tendency to take note of these extreme (and therefore vivid) examples causes us to oversimplify and think "women are compassionate, men are not".

If this is true, this could help explain how gender stereotypes are formed: our brains latch onto the most extreme examples because they are so striking and memorable, and then our brains use those extreme examples to generalize about everyone else, even though most people (regardless of gender) are near the average. So in the visualization task from a moment ago, where people are asked to visualize extreme examples of selfish or unselfish people, the faces that pop into mind tend to be gendered, and these gendered stereotypes in our minds may then get subconsciously applied more broadly to average men and women as well. This is, of course, not a reliable way to predict what most normal men and women are like!

To give an example: while on average women score only a little higher than men on traits like being peaceful, compassionate, and forgiving, if we consider statistics on mass shootings in the U.S., 96% of them were perpetrated by men. Similarly, males are convicted of the vast majority of homicides in the U.S., representing 90% of the total number of offenders. These cases being some of the most widely discussed examples of extreme violence, extreme lack of compassion, and extreme anger, perhaps these horrible events promote the stereotype of males typically being violent, compassionate, and angry (despite the average differences between men and women in these traits actually being small).

But how do we then explain the really striking gender difference in who perpetuates mass shootings and violent homicides? A partial explanation could be that the act of committing horrendous acts of violence is associated with extremely low levels of being peaceful, compassionate, and forgiving, and while the averages for these traits are really not that different for men and women, men are far more likely than women to have extremely low levels of all three of these traits at once! So when we consider mass shootings, we're considering the extreme tail end of personality, and we're stacking on top of each other multiple traits that show strong gender differences at the extremes.

Try out the interactive gender test and learn a lot more about gender and personality - it's free.


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