I have been reading Is There Anything Good About Men? by Roy Baumeister (co-author of the newer book, Willpower.). A few remarks here, with more below the fold.

1. If you are a zero-tolerance reader (“I stopped reading on page 9, because he said X, which is obviously wrong, so I figured there was no point in going any further”), then don’t pick up this book. If you are going to finish it, you have to follow almost the complete opposite approach. “Even if a lot of this is wrong, what insights can I take away?”

2. I did a quick search of Masonomics blogs to see if Baumeister had been discussed, and I was surprised not to find any posts. I would think that this book would be catnip for Robin Hanson, for one.

3. I think this would make a provocative “book club” book. I don’t see how it could fail to spark a conversation.So, here is a personality test. Treat these as binary choices.

1. If you had a problem with a neighbor (say, he lets his dog run loose and ruin your flower bed), do you think you should (a) try to make sure that the community’s rules are enforced to protect your interests or (b) try to get him to understand the impact of his actions on you and agree to change his behavior?

2. Thinking back on times when you might have taken a risk, do you remember (a) not taking chances, or having it work out badly when you did or (b) occasions when you took a risk and it paid off? [OOPS: these should be reversed for a’s and b’s]

3. At your funeral, do you expect people to remember (a) your accomplishments or (b) your relationships?

Baumeister’s view is that there are people who tend to cluster on one side or the other of these questions. Call them the a’s and the b’s.

The a’s will try for status and achievement. They will organize large groups of people, in businesses, armies, or what have you. They will innovate and take risks. Many will fail, and a few will succeed spectacularly. They will drive most economic growth.

The b’s will focus on close, immediate relationships rather than achievement. They will be risk averse. They will fail less often, but they will not generate innovations or social progress. They will not build large organizations.

Among a’s, someone’s value is conditional. You should be rewarded if you contribute, and in proportion to your contribution. Among b’s, someone’s value is intrinsic. A more egalitarian reward system might seem more fair.

So far, this probably sounds reasonable. Here is where it becomes more difficult to accept: for Baumeister, these are gender differences. The men are the a’s, and the women are b’s.

My view is that when it comes to personality scales, there are bell curves, and bell curves overlap. I doubt that he would disagree. The empirical question is how significant the differences are between the male and female distributions for these factors.

If the distributions of a’s and b’s are very different among genders, then this may explain why men occupy both the top and the bottom of the status heap. Men aim for the top (and often miss badly), while women aim for the middle. That extra motivation that is needed to make an important scientific discovery or become CEO is more present in the a’s (males) than in the b’s (females).

Baumeister goes further and argues that the gender differences are rooted in evolutionary reproduction strategies. Each female is likely to get a chance to reproduce, but no female is capable of reproducing dozens of times. On the other hand, many males are likely to fail to reproduce (or so he claims), while a few males may reproduce many times. Genghis Khan had many descendants.

To the extent that this reproduction-strategy theory is important for the book, it may be a problem. He thinks that it is central to the argument and that it is well established. I think it is less clearly established and, moreover, could be made peripheral to the argument.

Baumeister is prepared to explain traditional cultural institutions as emerging in order to maximize the benefits of these gender-based differences. He seems prepared to write a Whig History of traditional marriage, work-family arrangements, and so on. This Whig History ends with the advent of feminism, about which he appears to be highly conflicted. I could site passages that are strongly supportive of feminist goals along with many more passages that express profound bitterness toward feminist ideology.

Oddly enough, just as I was working on this post, I ran across Eric Raymond’s piece, which echoes some Baumiesterian themes on sex differences.

On the reproductive-strategy theory, color me agnostic. I am not hostile, but I am not yet convinced, either. But I am inclined to believe that there are a’s and b’s, and that the gender variable is a decent (not perfect) predictor of where one falls in those personality groupings.