Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"The Difference Between" and "The Difference Among"

Many people’s understanding of the differences between the sexes is plauged by a single misconception, namely, that the difference between the sexes is greater than the difference among either of the sexes. This misconception can severely limit your chances with men, so it is worth acknowledging and correcting.

We are all familiar with the stereotypes of the sexes’ various capabilities or character traits: men are physically stronger than women; women are more intuitive than men; men are more independent than women; women are better at multi-tasking than men; etc. Few of us would dispute that these stereotypes are accurate.

Yet all of us have seen instances that disagree with these stereotypes in varying degrees. I’ve met a few women that could easily kick my ass and plenty that can beat me in sports; we’ve all encountered incredibly effeminate men, or women who are domineering and independent.

If you plotted each man or woman’s “rank” with respect to a given character trait on a linear scale, you would see a large amount of dispersion or “scatter” in the data. For example, a plot on the intuition scale might look something like this (each point represents a single man or woman):
(Note that the vertical dispersion of the data is just used to better-illustrate the horizontal dispersion)

Similar plots could be made for all kinds of characteristics:
  • Height
  • Physical strength
  • Sex drive
  • Risk aversion
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Independence
  • etc.
On this blog I make a lot of statements about men and women, about masculinity and femininity, and about the effects of these dispositions on male-female relationships. Understanding these differences is important – critical, even – in learning how to dispose oneself towards the opposite sex. But it is equally important to keep in mind that these differences are only the differences between the averages. Not all men and women will conform to these stereotypes, and it would be a mistake to insist that because some do not, they are not “real men” or “real women,” or to ignore them in your attempts to attract the opposite sex. Be aware of this while reading this blog and others.

For example, I might make a statement like "Men desire sex more than women," and this is perfectly true when you look at the average man and the average woman. But it is just as important to recognize that you may encounter men that are less sexually driven than most women you know, or women who are hornier than any guy you’ve ever met. More importantly, you may not conform to the female stereotype yourself, which would probably mean that you would benefit from looking for a guy who doesn’t conform to the male stereotype (in that respect) either.

The following plot illustrates how a random group of men or women might fall on a masculine-feminine scale – which can be thought of as the combination of a large number of character traits.

Notice that the difference between men and women with respect to the masculinity-femininity scale is actually smaller than the male or female variance on the same scale. Again, the difference among men or women is larger than the difference between them. If you ignore this fact, one of the following could result:

(a) By only paying attention to the stereotypical male, you might miss out on a type of guy that is more appropriate for you than the stereotype – a better match.

(b) In the course of trying try too hard to conform to the stereotype of femininity, you could deny your naturalinclinations. Although your natural self may not attract as many men as your stereotyped self, it may attract more of the kind of men you are interested in. (Though be careful not to confuse your natural inclinations with social pressure – for example, the pressure to succeed in your job.)

So while you are thinking about or reading about the differences between the sexes, remember that, in most respects, the difference among is greater than the difference between; and this in turn means that the guy best for you or most attractive to you may be somewhere closer to the limits of the “scatter” rather than the average when it comes to a particular personality or physical trait.

Related Posts
1. Femininity, Authenticity and Compatibility
2. Men and Sexual Variety
3. The Analogy Between Confidence and Beauty
4. The Analogy Between Sexual and Emotional Support


  1. Pretty good post, and I agree with it. But your graphs actually overstate the differences between men and women. The true overlap for most things is much much greater.

    Most differences between males and females are no bigger than .6 standard deviations.

    Table 1 in that pdf shows the differences for many traits. Figure 1 graphically shows the difference between two populations with a difference of .21. It's very small!

    Some of the larger differences are around .5 or .6. Check out this graph which illustrates that type of difference. Still pretty small.,r:9,s:0,i:100&tx=99&ty=56

    1. Interesting. I am surprised that the difference is THAT small, but I'll have to see how they conducted the study before making a judgement. I can see how even a small difference would have huge implications though. I mean, if you just look at the way the world is, it clearly does have huge implications.

      Thanks for the link.

    2. Gee Greg, that sure is spiffy. I'm not believing a word of the meta-analysis unless statisticians verify the data from the underlying studies and then verify the methods used in the meta-analysis.

      Adding to that I want to know how the measured standard deviations in the traits become real world differences.

    3. Well, it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Mistakes are possible, I guess. Individual studies might have some problems. But any one mistake is unlikely to have a big impact on the overall message.

      One reason I think that differences are exaggerated is because we think of extreme cases a lot.

      Suppose that males are better at "science" than women by 0.32 std dev. Pretty small really. An average male who scores at .32 std devs beyond the female mean, is only better than 63% of females. In the middle, you can assume that men and women are similar in science. But at the extremes, the difference is more noticeable. If you look at only people who are in the top 1 percent in science, more than 70% are men.

  2. You are comparing average difference between populations to maximal difference within population. That's comparing apples and oranges. You need to compare averages differences between population to an AVERAGE difference within population. Your intuition graph is an example of the former slightly larger than the latter.

  3. So if I'm reading it right this means that you are capable as either sex of finding a partner with traits very similar to yours as well as very far apart, depending on what you are looking for personally?

  4. This is slowly turning into a stats blog, lol

    1. I know, right? If I'd known so many statisticians were reading I would have broken out my text books before I wrote this post...

  5. Is there a post coming on finding signs about a man's sexual history? Men's promiscuity tells, if he's "all talk", if he's had FWBs etc.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. Yes, it was written in 2012, but I've only just found your blog. Started at the beginning and have read many from there, but so much of your advice just doesn't pertain to me and my man. Okay, part of that is because we're "only" in a 8 year FwB relationship, but 90% of it is because I'm far more masculine and he's far more feminine, to the point where we are inverse stereotypes of our genders.

    So, this post is excellent for stating what more people need to realize:
    Stereotypes are generalizations, not individuals.

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