Data Mine: From Personality to Cultural Literacy

Prosperity, beauty at its peak, literacy's influence, and more.

By Robin Nixon, Suzanne Krause, Matthew Hutson, published May 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Global Gender Bender

Prosperity affects men's personalities more.

The nurture-trumps-nature crowd preaches that if you give boys and girls the same toys, education, and career options, their personalities will be less influenced by their gender. But a study suggests the opposite—the more egalitarian a country, the greater the differences between men's and women's personalities.

According to a study of five character traits across 17,837 people from 55 nations, in lands of equal opportunity, men are much more emotionally stable than women. They're also more disagreeable and more disorganized. Their counterparts in more traditional societies resemble women more closely.

But it's not the gender equality that drives a wedge between men's and women's traits in enlightened countries; it's the resources. These nations score high marks on the human development scale—life expectancy, school enrollment, economic prosperity. The researchers suggest that the gender differences are innate but that their expression is suppressed in struggling societies.

Head researcher David Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois notes that many biological sex differences, such as height and blood pressure, flourish in resource-rich environments. Standards of living tend to affect the development of a species' larger gender disproportionately. A man's growth is more vulnerable to poor nutrition than a woman's. Maybe his personality is, too. —Robin Nixon

Desire: In Full Bloom

Prettiness at its peak.

Excepting those with a goth aesthetic, we often express ardor in poetry and song by comparing the object of affection to a flower in full bloom. But why? We all know that men prefer vitality and fertility in potential partners. A paper in Psychological Science demonstrates that simply exposing people to the idea of mating heightens their sensitivity to growth and decay in everything from people to plantains.

Subjects rated their esteem for an actress at various stages of her career. Reading a passage about a romantic date primed them to devalue her toddler and elderly stages more than reading a neutral passage did. It also boosted preference for a yellow banana over a green or brown one, and a flower in bloom over a bud or a wilted flower. The mating prime had no effect on their preference for a new car over a rusty or partially assembled one.

Co-author Julie Huang of Yale calls this "sensitivity to the peak" an essential evolutionary adaptation that influences a wide array of choices, from mates to meals. But we can unduly favor peak traits even when they have little to do with the task at hand: A manager interviewing two otherwise equal job applicants may prize the 30-year-old over the 45-year-old if he has just perused the listings. —Suzanne Krause

Aesthetics: Reading, Writing, and Rembrandt

Literacy creates spatial biases.

Ask an adult to draw a boy giving a girl a gift and he'll probably draw the boy on the left. Try it in the Middle East, and the boy will be on the right. But according to a paper in Psychological Science, preschoolers don't exhibit either bias. How we perceive and imagine the world is influenced by the direction we learn to read and write.

Typically sentences list subject before object, so most Westerners automatically envision actions happening from left to right, and the more powerful party situated to the left. This asymmetry shows up in art: A 1973 survey of Western European portraits since 1500 found that subjects tended to show more left cheek, as if they were sitting slightly to the right, passively receiving the painter's regard. This left-cheek bias is stronger in portraits of women and weaker for kings.

An Italian study reported in Social Cognition finds that the direction of written language even sways our interpretations of sporting events. Italian speakers watched video clips of soccer goals and rated left-to-right goals as stronger, faster, and more beautiful. Arabic speakers, however, preferred goals shot from the right. The researchers found the same pattern, but to a lesser degree, when people rated the violence of attacks in fight scenes. Aspiring film directors everywhere, take note. —Matthew Hutson

Rite of Way

The ritual scar.

According to The Simpsons, "chicks dig scars." Some anthropologists have suggested scarification is a way for men to signal mate quality through resistance both to infection and to, well, wimping out.

But a study of 60 tribal cultures shows instead that painful rites primarily signal group commitment. Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, looked at the intensity of male rituals, from face painting to genital mutilation, and found the grimace-inducing rites more common in warring cultures, where collective action is most urgent. If you'll toe the line at cutting time, the marks imply, you won't turn tail in battle.


Regret your ritual scars? Which treatments are useful, neutral, or harmful, according to research?

  • Silicone gel sheeting: These flexible strips often prevent new scars and reduce old ones.
  • Mederma: Works no better than petroleum jelly. The "active" ingredient, onion extract, is ineffective.
  • Vitamin E: Can impair wound healing, and one in three people has an allergic reaction. —Matthew Hutson