Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Here's an intriguing question from Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones: Does Having Sisters Turn Boys Into Republicans? Mencimer writes:
... a new study by researchers from Loyola Marymount University and Stanford University's business school suggests [a] factor [that] may play a role in forming the political brain: the gender of one's siblings. According to the study, boys with only a sister were 15 percent more likely to identify as a Republican in high school, and they were 13.5 percent more conservative in their views of women's roles than boys who only had brothers.

The reason for this difference? Not genes or neural pathways, but something more mundane: housework. The researchers speculate that boys take their cues about women's roles from an early age, and that girls tend to be assigned more traditional chores when they have a brother. Watching their sisters do this housework "teaches" boys that washing dishes and other such drudgery is simply women's work. Boys with only brothers don't seem to have this problem because the chore load at home tends to be spread around more equally....

Perhaps even more important than the impact sisters have on men's political views is the way sisters may influence how their brothers turn out as husbands. The study found that boys with sisters grow up to be men who don't help much around the house. The researchers' data show that middle-aged men who grew up with a sister are 17 percent more likely to say their spouses did more housework than they did compared with men who had only brothers....
Interesting -- except that this past Sunday's New York Times reported research that seems to point in the opposite direction:
Consider, for example, the series of studies led by the psychologist Paul Van Lange at the Free University in Amsterdam. To figure out what motivates people to act generously, Professor Van Lange and three colleagues set up a game in which more than 600 people made choices about sharing resources with someone they didn't know and would never meet again.

... The givers were 40 percent more likely to have sisters than the people who made more self-serving, competitive choices. (There was no difference in the number of brothers; it was the number of sisters, not siblings, that predicted greater giving.) And Professor Van Lange's team pointed to another study showing that the more sisters a father has, the more time he spends raising his own children. After growing up with sisters, men who have opportunities to give are more likely to do so.

SOCIAL scientists believe that the empathetic, nurturing behaviors of sisters rub off on their brothers....
Except that the social scientists cited by Stephanie Mencimer believe that the empathetic, nurturing behavior of sisters is regarded by their brothers as icky and gender-stratified and something they certainly wouldn't want to emulate -- or at least this is true if the brothers have only female siblings. And these boys grow up to be less likely to do housework.

I think social science can reveal real truths about human nature -- but I also think we're quick to seize on one study, or series of studies, that seems to tell us something intriguing (or stereotype-confirming). Such a study could be poorly designed, or might have an inadequate sample size, or (if it involves some artificial task) might not really model real-life behavior at all.

So, yeah, this research is interesting, but I'm going to remain skeptical about all of it.


Mart said...

I have four older sisters and one younger brother. Most all of us are liberal, with me the most liberal. My mom taught me to cook meals for the family. She told me with my looks I might not be able to get married; so I will need to know how to cook meals for myself.

Victor said...

I must also be an outlier, because I only have one sibling - a sister who is younger by 3 1/2 years.

And, while she's recently become more religious, she's very much a liberal.

And, since I was older, and both parent's worked, I was the one who walked her to Grade School, where, in NY City, I was a crossing-guard, and took her home.

And, because she was younger, I was both a baby-sitter, and short-order cook.
I did a lot of what's considered "women's work," until she was old enough to handle some of it.

But, by that time, we had moved to Upstate NY, and that was a whole different culture, from NY City.

In the suburbs, gender roles were much clearly defined.

But still, she was still so young, so I continues to make meals, when both of my parents were working.

tony in san diego said...

you are also comparing Americans and Europeans in the two studies. I suspect this is a huge difference.

Unknown said...

Meh, I don't think you can draw conclusions from small sample sizes. I had an older sister who influenced my taste in music and politics growing up in the '60's and '70's. She was a typically liberal, hippie-type back then, but she never cared much for cooking or cleaning.
Now, unfortunately, she's a teabagger-type Republican who voted for Bush twice. Me, I'm still a liberal, who enjoys cooking and does most of the sweeping and mopping.
In other words, I think it comes down to the individual.