Decidedly a self-defined “personality person,” DR. DAVID P. SCHMITT, Caterpillar professor of psychology, is making international headlines as he and his students analyze survey data collected from 56 nations representing six continents, 13 islands, and 28 languages. Schmitt heads the Personality and Culture Laboratory in Bradley’s Department of Psychology and is founder of the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP). Initiated in 2000, the ISDP investigates how culture, personality, and gender combine to influence sexual attitudes and behaviors.
It’s not just the idea of asking people questions about how their personality affects their romantic relationships that Schmitt and his students find interesting. It’s also how the actual personality and sexuality variables in the International Sexuality Description Project vary across gender and culture. For example, in some cultures there are rather large personality differences between men and women, whereas in other cultures, gender differences are much smaller. This is especially true of gender differences in anti-social attitudes and behaviors (e.g., having low empathy, little compassion, and engaging in high criminality). In general, men are more anti-social than women, but ISDP research suggests this is not true across all cultures.
Schmitt’s research has led him to theorize: “When resources are low and mortality rates are high, a culture can be considered under psychological stress. Both men and women become more anti-social in those stressful environments, but the effects appear more pronounced on women. As a result, women’s anti-sociality rises to become nearly identical to men’s in high-stress cultures. We have about a dozen samples across Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia where women’s anti-sociality tends to be equal to men’s. A rather intriguing aspect to this is that, although men and women are more equal in terms of personality in high-stress cultures, they are most unequal in terms of socio-political power and socialization practices within these very same cultures.” The ISDP research attempts to understand this counter-intuitive result from an evolutionary perspective.
“Why are some humans dutifully monogamous while others are rampantly unfaithful?”
Schmitt’s evolutionary perspective was part of a September 2008 New York Times article that received significant attention. Writer John Tierney quoted Schmitt: “When men and women are treated equally and allowed to be who they want to be, their personalities are more different than when they’re constrained. Our theory is that high stress constrains men and women’s personalities and sexualities. When the genders are allowed to be free, their ‘natural’ differences emerge.” It’s a controversial theory the ISDP is researching.
In terms of anti-sociality, it may be that high empathy and compassion only emerge in women when given a chance (i.e., in low-stress cultures). “On the other hand,” adds Schmitt, “it may just be that high stress always mutes empathy and compassion, whereas low stress and socialization equality allow women’s positive personality facets to emerge — while men remain jerks.”
Schmitt, who has taught at Bradley since 1995, wants his students to use caution when interpreting standard psychological research results. He encourages them to not employ a universalist framework and automatically assume, “This is the way human nature is. Human nature is not necessarily what we think it is based upon just the science we have right now. My goal is to excite our students about cross-cultural research and teach them to be humble and respectful of new studies coming out in different cultures.” The students in the Personality and Culture Laboratory are doing that type of exciting and perspective-expanding work right now.
Apparently, the topic of sexuality continues to intrigue the variety of psychology students who have worked in the Personality and Culture Laboratory over the last 10 years. The department chair has never had to actively recruit students, but he does regret that probably 25 percent of potential student researchers who would add to the diversity of the discussions in the lab are not present as they are too uncomfortable talking about sexuality. Students who are politically conservative and highly religious tend to be under-represented in sexuality research, both as participants and as research assistants. Even so, with so many psychology majors (typically around 200), in the long run it isn’t too difficult for him to create a diverse group in the lab. The students selected to work in the lab are open to cross-cultural exploration as they elected to work on sexuality issues and think about their ramifications across cultures very different from our own.
In the classroom, Schmitt emphasizes that much of the psychological science that has been conducted in the past has been limited to Western samples: the United States, Europe, and Australia. “So in every class I teach, I ask, ‘Would this result generalize to other cultures? Not only Eastern cultures because East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong) is very different from Africa, which is very different from Southeast Asia.’ Hunter-gatherers and foraging cultures also exist — and represent the cultural form within which ancestral humans evolved — but only a few remain untouched by the outside world. Would a study’s findings generalize to them? Probably not in a lot of cases, but it’s important for us to go further and explore why not — in what way would a student expect a psychological study conducted in the United States to produce different findings across diverse cultural forms?”
Since Bradley University is revisiting its core curriculum, Schmitt notes part of what is emerging is a consensus that “our current students need to be successful at understanding the meaning of globalization, at understanding the world and its varied cultures.” Both in his classrooms and in his research laboratory, Schmitt is advocating cross-cultural perspective-taking and is devoted to enhancing the respect and understanding his students have for the world’s enormous cultural diversity. This includes the multicultural variability right here in the USA.
Gender and promiscuity
Empirically, Schmitt’s ISDP research shows that unrestrained or “promiscuous” mating strategies take on different forms and are prevalent at varying levels in different parts of the world. For example, ISDP findings suggest sexual promiscuity is higher in cultures with more women than men in the local mating population — what is called an imbalanced sex ratio. “With an imbalanced sex or gender ratio,” says Schmitt, “it seems counter-intuitive because we stereotype men as more promiscuous. Nevertheless, it is almost always cultures with more women than men where promiscuity and mate poaching (i.e., stealing another person’s partner) are conspicuously high.”
One of the theories Schmitt considers is that when women outnumber men, the men become a scarce resource, and women have a harder time competing for them. Men in that situation are able to impose promiscuity upon the women, and the women can’t secure a long-term mate as easily because so few long-term mating men are available. “We see that not only across cultures but even within our own culture across geographic locations and across time periods in American history. Consider our inner cities where many men are in prison, or look at times of warfare in our nation’s past. When we have observed these sex ratio imbalances, our mating system has changed, creating more poaching, promiscuity, and infidelity. And so, over time within nations and across nations, we find evidence in support of this theory. It’s fascinating that a gender balance would change a mating system in a species, and it does so in a similar way in some other species, as well.”
How the survey works
The study Schmitt is currently conducting has taken place over the last five years, and he and his more than 100 collaborators are close to publishing their research. It’s an arduous process. His collaborators, a team of psychologists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other researchers collect data across the globe. This is the second wave of the cross-cultural research they have completed. The first wave spanned four years from conception, to recruiting collaborators, to publication. “That’s a long time, and it takes a certain personality — my Ph.D. was in personality psychology — to be able to delay gratification this long,” says Schmitt. “You have to embody an enduring curiosity that won’t be satisfied for a few years. People who are more impulsive and are unable to delay gratification typically don’t become science professors. I suppose that can make us appear a little boring, though.”
Half of his collaborators enter data at their own research site and send Schmitt an SPSS data file. The other half mails research surveys directly to Bradley where the data are entered in the Personality and Culture Laboratory. All of the survey responses are then cleaned, collated, and thoroughly analyzed. “One way I entice or reward my collaborators is to publish with them,” says Schmitt. “Psychological researchers want to publish in the major high-impact journals listed in PsycInfo®. Publishing frequently with my collaborators provides a large incentive to them.”
All questionnaires, though written in dozens of languages, are formatted the same and focus on the same personality traits and sexual behaviors. Schmitt and his colleagues simultaneously administer the surveys to college students and communities worldwide. Despite some language barriers, students know a certain series of questions must be entered in a certain column in the database. Difficulties can emerge in languages that run right to left, but Schmitt’s students have dutifully persisted and have done amazing work in data entry, statistical analysis, and co-authoring numerous journal articles with him.
Considering personal relevance, how does being a husband and father color his research? “In terms of the romantic relationship research, I talk to my wife, Ann, all the time about theories and surveys I’m creating; I think of her as a partner in my scientific enterprise. Ann is not a trained psychologist enmeshed in all the theories and empirical techniques we use to measure things. But she provides me with a critical resource — intelligent common sense. Sometimes I struggle for weeks with a research problem and after talking with her for five minutes, she provides an insightful solution by having an intelligent common-sense perspective. My family is familiar with my cross-cultural research studies and thinks it’s pretty normal to know that when in a stressful environment, anti-social tendencies become higher and genders differ across cultures in predictable ways. Sometimes, though, my family does ask me to stop analyzing everything.”
Visit bradley.edu/hilltopics/go/schmitt for more information and a list of Schmitt’s publications.
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