Gender differences are smaller than we think

Although gender plays a big part in our identities, new research finds men and woman aren’t as different as we tend to think.

Gender stereotypes can influence beliefs and create the impression that the differences are large, says Zlatan Krizan, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

To separate fact from fiction, Krizan and colleagues conducted a meta-synthesis of more than 100 meta-analyses of gender differences. Combined, the studies they aggregated included more than 12 million people.

Their report, published in American Psychologist, found an almost 80 percent overlap for more than 75 percent of the psychological characteristics, such as risk-taking, occupational stress, and morality. Simply put, our differences are not so profound.

“This is important because it suggests that when it comes to most psychological attributes, we are relatively similar to one another as men and women,” Krizan says.

“This was true regardless of whether we looked at cognitive domains, such as intelligence; social personality domains, such as personality traits; or at well-being, such as satisfaction with life.”

10 significant gaps

The similarities were also consistent regardless of age and over time. However, researchers don’t dispute that men and women have their differences.

They identified 10 attributes in which there was a significant gap between genders. Some of these characteristics fell in line with stereotypes. For example, men were more aggressive and masculine, while women had a closer attachment to peers and were more sensitive to pain.

If we’re so similar, why do we think we’re different?

The purpose of the meta-synthesis was not to identify why men and women are different, but measure by how much.

Extremes can be misleading

The results contradict what many people think, and Krizan has a few explanations as to why. One reason is the difference in extremes. The evidence researchers aggregated focuses on a typical range of characteristics, but on the far end of the spectrum the differences are often exaggerated, Krizan says.

“People tend to overestimate the differences because they notice the extremes,” Krizan says.

He uses aggression as one example. “If you look at incarceration rates to compare the aggressiveness of men and women, the fact that men constitute the vast majority of the prison population supports the idea that men are extremely more aggressive. However, it’s a misleading estimate of how much typical men and women differ on aggressiveness, if that’s the only thing you look at for comparison,” he says.

Additionally, people notice multiple differences simultaneously, which can give the impression of a larger effect. Researchers looked at the average for each trait individually rather than a combination of differences.

“The difference on any one trait is pretty small,” Krizan says. “When there are several smaller differences, people might think there’s a big difference because the whole configuration has a different flavor. I think they make a mistake assuming that any given trait is very different from typical men to women.”

Researchers also point out that they did not try to determine to what extent these differences reflect real, physical or biological differences between genders. For example, do men tolerate more pain because they believe that is what they should do as a man? Krizan says some behavioral differences may be learned through social roles.

Although men may be said to come from Mars and women from Venus, these findings remind us that we all come from Earth after all, he adds.

Krizan worked on the study with Ethan Zell, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Sabrina Teeter, a graduate student at Western Carolina University.

Source: Iowa State University

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Tiny injectable beeping tags used to track salmon

Each tag is about the length of two grains of rice (Photo: PNNL)

In order to study how young fish such as salmon are affected by swimming through hydroelectric dams, scientists have traditionally equipped them with surgically-implanted acoustic tracking tags. Unfortunately, the implantation procedure can harm the fish, plus the weight of the device can affect their behavior. Now, however, a team at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Washington state has developed a much lighter acoustic tag, that can be injected into fish using a needle.
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projects • Re: UC Chair Semester

Different is ok, but should be the result not the goal. What’s the main reason for your chsir to exist? What unique aspect do you want to explore? Find that and craft your design solution and the result will have meaning. Is it material driven? Function driven? Assembly driven? The classic eames chair (and lounge too) was a different solution spurred by new materials and processes.

Your flat pack idea I think is going in the right direction. Explore it more. Why is it flat pack? To save cost? Enable modularity? Customization? Easy moving?

You said yourself you don’t want just another cool chair. If you can come up with the 5 sec pitch of why yours exists you’ll have a good basis for concepts and judging if the solution is good or bad.


Marshall Wallace: "How to Opt Out of Conflict"

This live blog of Marshall Wallace’s talk on January 29, 2015 was created by Gordon Mangum, Ali Hashmi, Ed Platt, Dalia Othman, and Yu Wang, with Willow Brugh on edits and visualization.


Marshall Wallace specializes in studying the unintended consequences of peacebuilding processes. His book “Opting Out of War: Strategies to Prevent Violent Conflict” focuses on conflict prevention work and challenges myths and prevailing ideas about conflict prevention. It is in part based on his previous time as the Director of the Do No Harm Project.


Marshall Wallace opened his talk by asking “What if we gave a war and nobody came?” This may seem like a rhetorical question but actually happens all the time, and not just in pacifist communities. The communities who opt out are not immune to consequences of conflict, but they opt not to participate. Wallace and his team studied 13 communities that managed to stay out of conflicts. Tuzla in Bosnia is one example. Amongst other actions, as a symbolic response to its ongoing siege, the community in Tuzla rebuilt an orthodox church that had been bombed, even setting up lights to work on the reconstruction through night.


Marshall handed out an “Opting Out of War” framework that focuses on six patterns that define conflict options. These characteristics are visible everywhere, including in the US, not just in conflict zones:

1. Having Options: “Make an affirmative choice to opt out of war.” It’s important for communities to understand they don’t have to participate in the violence everyone else in engaged in. People who didn’t participate in violence often said “we had a choice,” whereas people who got swept up in conflict often said “we didn’t have a choice.” When people feel that they do have a choice a rapid process can emerge around how to avoid participating.

2. Identity: “Select a familiar and normal non-war common identity.” People can often find a relevant non-war identity. This can involve finding a time in their history when there were identities focused on peace. An example might be the idea that “Our ancestors were such good warriors that we don’t have to fight” or “We were always led by a Muslim, Serb and Croat in the past and should be now.” There are towns in Mozambique that identify as being founded by soldiers who chose to stop fighting and live together. When communities can find moments in history that justify non-participation it often works.

3. Opportunity: ”Maintain existing public services and economic activities.” Conflict destroys economic opportunities and structure and makes people concerned about their future. Communities often feel that “we didn’t want to give up the gains of the last 20 years by participating in conflict,” so they find a way to maintain existing services. As a case example Marshall cited a community in Afghanistan that actually expanded the reach of it’s power grid during that country’s prolonged conflict.

4. Dispute Resolution: ”Maintain internal order.” This is a key factor in dispute resolution. Marshall noted that communities generally put a lot of time and energy into dispute resolution processes. The question for organizations trying to intervene or for the community as a whole when confronted with the possibility of violence becomes “what is there already for dispute resolution and how do we make use of it to avoid conflict?” Using traditional mechanisms like trusted, respected mediators, maintains internal order.

5. Security: ”Maintain security and engage with armed groups.” Sometimes it can be extremely effective for a community to engage in dialog with fighters. Marshall cited examples of groups that made a case to fighters that the community should exist and their boundaries should be respected, such as some communities in the Philippines. The question of why armed groups abide by these agreements is difficult to answer. In interviews with actual fighters Marshall and his team found sentiments similar to “we could have gone in if we wanted to, but it didn’t make strategic sense.” These interviews centered on implicit codes of conduct which are not written but assumed to be existent.

6. Fun: ”Enjoy each other, celebrate, boost morale.” Marshall observed that fun is the best way to create social cohesion. “You’ve got to have fun with each other,” he said. As an example, in Tuzla a composer wrote new patriotic songs, extolling the virtue of neither side in the war, but of the community and all people. Community organizing and events as fundamental as eating together play a role in finding ways to have fun and engage peacefully with each other.

Wallace noted that a “thriving” community is doing all six of these things, and gave examples of communities which managed to avoid conflict by employing one of the six “opting out of war” options.

Applied Locally: Somerville

Wallace has been a resident of Somerville, MA for 30 years and said that it used to have a high crime rate, including frequent biker gang fights near bars. But the current Mayor is very open to new ideas and vigorous in creating feedback mechanisms. He emphasizes shared identity in a town situated between major universities and home to students and immigrants. An example of a shared social cause has been an anti-obesity campaign which has drawn national attention, including being cited by Michelle Obama. When there is a dispute, such as around future plans for Lexington Park, there was sometimes a split between residents who considered themselves part of “old’ Somerville versus residents who felt they were part of a “new” Somerville. This divide was so deep that “someone got killed” as a result of the “old” and “new” conflict. In the instance of the dispute over Lexington Park the Alderman (who was a founder of “Save Our Somerville”) and Mayor worked together to help resolve the conflict. This was an example of “maintaining internal order” while also finding commonality instead of difference in identity.

As a local example of engaging with groups Wallace cited the change in the longstanding gang problem. A new police chief went to high schools and identified the gang tables, then sat down and talked to the members. He offered an exchange: if they refrained from violence the police wouldn’t harass them. In a relatively short period of time gang related murders all but disappeared.

An example of creating fun can be seen in the city sponsored “summer streets” events. The city also encourages civil society groups to create community events. The city also recognizes the value of creating places where people can get together. Artisan’s Asylum recently promoted a snowman building event and snowball fight in Union Square. These are various examples of how Somerville might be seen as a thriving community using the above criteria.


Q: Informal agreements to maintain peace are quite common in Eastern countries. Are there historical examples where Western communities have declined to participate in conflict?
Wallace: Yes, some communities in Mississippi decided not to participate in the civil war and abolished slavery to maintain peace with the Union for example.

Q: What happens to these communities when the war ends?
Wallace: During the course of the fighting they didn’t want outside help because that changes the dynamic. The community often feels that if they receive outside resources it will change the fighter’s calculations and potentially make them a target for violence. The downside for communities that do manage to avoid conflict is that they are often neglected after the war because they sustained less damage, so they get less resources. These communities would appreciate more aid, and shouldn’t we be rewarding the communities that are doing something right and managed to avoid the conflict?

Q: Why do some communities opt into violence and some opt out? What’s the tipping point?
Wallace: Opting out seems to be more possible when some communities are able to think about the oncoming violence much sooner than other communities. When people are caught by surprise by violence they are less likely to be able to opt out.

Q: Do communities gain appeal as a magnet for people interested in opting out of violence?

Wallace: It varies. In Tuzla, the mayor received international recognition, but was a member of a less popular political party in Bosnia, so had very little national influence.


Two frameworks

Communities have dividers and connectors. Interventions will always support either dividers or connectors. People who a good job at intervention look for changes in dividers/connectors over time, and look for ways to influence those changes. They then observe, re-evaluate, and iterate. He lists five potential patterns for providing resources. For example, aid criteria can favor one group and increase local tension. Losers of a conflict, for example, typically get more aid because they have greater need, which can lead to further conflict.

“Are the dividers or connectors getting worse or better?” Communities examine their context using this question and reassess their strategies accordingly. The losers of the conflict have more needs. Peace is a continuum, and it’s important to understand needs of all parties in the conflict.

Wallace said that putting resources into one community can increases tensions with other groups. Because losers usually get more resources this can actually lead to tensions and outbreaks of additional violence. This happens even post-conflict. When things are getting worse we need to examine the dynamic and consider how to rebalance it. For example, if the distribution effect is causing tension we should provide resources to both sides. But we can’t assume the needs are the same on both sides and that we should just give the same things to each side.

Challenges of logging change and communicating knowledge

Wallace said that one of the biggest challenges is doing context analysis over a period of time. Too often, it’s done at the beginning of a project, and then not looked at until after the project. Or, different people will do an analysis and not share it with each other. If it isn’t done on an ongoing and shared basis one can’t effectively compare the before and after situation and judge the effects of the program.

We don’t share our successes or communicate them (even to officemates sometimes!) Yet the internet exists in part to solve communication and data visualization challenges. In this case, what would Do No Harm look like as software? Wallace demonstrated software he has been working on called “Landscape.” It allows teams to set up dividers and connectors and rate them periodically as getting better or worse. By tracking this over time you can see changes that are aggregated across a team while also seeing individual ratings if you so choose. When we see change over time we start to problem solve around it. Marshall also said it would allow people who are far away (like funders) to get both a wide and very granular view of how things are going and whether they are getting better or worse.

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…” CS Lewis

Questions Pt. 2

Q: I’m reminded of Stuart Kaufman’s work. When you have an example, for example in Karachi, when a conflict is forming, what is the starting point?
Wallace: Ask what are the major dividers or major grievances? Also look for connectors. Where do the groups come together? In physical spaces? Through Industries? Places where women from both groups gather? Find these and try to expand their influence. Even a small shared cultural thing like street theater can be used to show people ways to come together.

Groups have to be the “right” size for conflict to break out. If one group is too big or too small it is much less likely. This has been modelled by Yaneer Bar-Yam at the New England Complex Systems Institute. You can either merge groups or reinforce border as possible solutions.

Q: What is a connector?
Marshall: Here are some examples: Shared religion. The role of women in peacebuilding. Groups who worked together pre-war. Some are strong, some are weak, but they can all be used to help peacebuilding efforts.


‘Parasitic’ genes let mammals evolve pregnancy

Transposons, also called “jumping genes,” were a key part of the evolution of pregnancy among mammals, report scientists.

They found thousands of genes that evolved to be expressed in the uterus in early mammals, including many that are important for maternal-fetal communication and suppression of the immune system.

“…I guess we owe the evolution of pregnancy to what are effectively genomic parasites”

Surprisingly, these genes appear to have been recruited and repurposed from other tissue types by transposons—ancient mobile genetic elements sometimes thought of as genomic parasites.

“For the first time, we have a good understanding of how something completely novel evolves in nature, of how this new way of reproducing came to be,” says study author Vincent Lynch, assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago.

“Most remarkably, we found the genetic changes that likely underlie the evolution of pregnancy are linked to domesticated transposable elements that invaded the genome in early mammals. So I guess we owe the evolution of pregnancy to what are effectively genomic parasites.”

The study appears online in Cell Reports.

From people to pigs to platypus

To study genetic changes during the evolution of pregnancy in mammals, Lynch and his colleagues used high-throughput sequencing to catalog genes expressed in the uterus of several types of living animals—placental mammals (a human, monkey, mouse, dog, cow, pig, horse, and armadillo), a marsupial (opossum), an egg-laying mammal (platypus), a bird, a reptile, and a frog.

Then they used computational and evolutionary methods to reconstruct which genes were expressed in ancestral mammals.

The researchers found that as the first mammals evolved—and resources for fetal development began to come more from the mother and less from a yolk—hundreds of genes that are important for cellular signaling, metabolism, and uterine development started to be expressed in the uterus.

As the eggshell was lost and live-birth evolved in the common ancestor to marsupials and placental mammals, more than 1,000 genes were turned on, many of which were strongly linked to the establishment of maternal-fetal communication.

As prolonged pregnancy evolved in placental mammals, hundreds of genes began to be expressed that greatly strengthened and elaborated maternal-fetal communication, as well locally suppressing the maternal immune system in the uterus—thus protecting the developing fetus.

The team also identified hundreds of genes that were turned off as these lineages evolved, many of which had been involved in eggshell formation.

“We found lots of genes important for maintaining hormone signaling and mediating maternal-fetal communication, which are essential for pregnancy, evolved to be expressed in the uterus in early mammals,” Lynch says.

“But immune suppression genes stand out. The fetus is genetically distinct from the mother. If these immune genes weren’t expressed in the uterus, the fetus would be recognized by the mother’s immune system as foreign and attacked like any other parasite.”

Genes get new jobs

In addition to function, Lynch and his colleagues investigated the origin of these genes. They found most already had roles in other organ and tissue systems such as the brain, digestive, and circulatory systems.

But during the evolution of pregnancy, these genes were recruited to be expressed in the uterus for new purposes. They evolved regulatory elements that allowed them to be activated by progesterone, a hormone critical in reproduction.

The team found that this process was driven by ancient transposons—stretches of non-protein coding DNA that can change their position within the genome.

‘Genomic parasites’

Sometimes called “jumping genes,” transposons are generally thought to be genomic parasites that serve only to replicate themselves. Many of the ancient mammalian transposons possessed progesterone binding sites that regulate this process. By randomly inserting themselves into other places in the genome, transposons appear to have passed on this activation mechanism to nearby genes.

“Genes need some way of knowing when and where to be expressed,” Lynch says. “Transposable elements appear to have brought this information, allowing old genes to be expressed in a new location, the uterus, during pregnancy. Mammals very likely have a progesterone-responsive uterus because of these transposons.”

Lynch and his colleagues note their findings represent a novel explanation for how entirely new biological structures and functions arise. Rather than genes gradually evolving uterine expression one at a time, transposable elements coordinated large-scale, genome-wide changes that allowed numerous genes to be activated by the same signal—in this case, progesterone, which helped drive the evolution of pregnancy.

“It’s easy to imagine how evolution can modify an existing thing, but how new things like pregnancy evolve has been much harder to understand,” Lynch says. “We now have a new mechanistic explanation of this process that we’ve never had before.”

The Burroughs Wellcome Preterm Birth Initiative and the John Templeton Foundation supported the work.

Source: University of Chicago

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Sagrada Familia recreated in ice, but still incomplete

A scale replica of the Sagrada Familia has been created using ice (Photo: Bart van Overbee...

Students from the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) have built an ice replica of Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia basilica. Fittingly, like the actual Barcelona landmark, the simplified model was incomplete by the time it was due to open. The aim of the project was to investigate the use of ice as a building material.
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