Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What's the matter with men and/or women?

 Recently (actually, six weeks ago, but I lose my sense of time when the semester is over) the New York Times had a piece called "Women and the 'Don't Know' Problem," about the reasons that women are more likely to say "don't know" in polls than men are.  It started out by saying that women were less willing to express opinions than men were, but then turned to suggesting that men were more likely to claim knowledge that they don't actually have--"men comfortably hold forth on topics that they have little expertise on."  That theme was picked up in the reader comments, many of which comfortably held forth about the basic psychology of men and women.

An alternative hypothesis is that most poll questions are about politics and public affairs, and men may be more interested in those topics (or feel more obligation to be somewhat informed about them) than women are.  In order to choose between them we need to compare men and women on a range of questions, both political and non-political.  There is a series of surveys by Vanity Fair/CBS News which occasionally ask factual multiple-choice questions on a wide variety of issues.  I looked up the last 11 (it was going to be ten, but the last survey I looked at included two) examples, which involved:  what Donald Trump had said about himself, who Bubba Watson is, how many justices are on the Supreme Court, who Jamie Dimon is, how many universities are in the Ivy League, what Kwanzaa is, who Judd Apatow is, who Wayne LaPierre is, which one of a list of people was not a college dropout, where Northwestern University is located, and who Thomas Paine was.

The results:
                women            men
              c  i  dk         c   i dk
Trump         56 20 25   46 30 23
Watson        23 27 51         39 23 37
Supremes      36 49 16         45 49 5

Dimon         12 18 70         16 22 62
Ivy Leage     31 48 20         38 46 15
Kwanzaa       63 16 21         57 19 24

Apatow        12 22 65         16 21 62
LaPierre      19 26 56         30 23 46
dropout       11 44 46        14 53 33

Northwestern 29 36 35         39 37 23
Paine         41 16 44         47 18 35

Women are more likely to say that they don't know for ten of the eleven questions.The idea that men are more likely to claim knowledge even if they don't have it suggests that the ratio of correct to incorrect answers will be higher among women.  But that's true for only two of the questions, Donald Trump and Kwanzaa. Men are more likely to offer correct answers on nine of the questions, and more likely to offer incorrect answers on only six.

Overall, men just seem more likely to know the right answer (or be willing and able to make an educated guess) on most of the questions.  Of course, these questions aren't a representative sample of anything.  There are a couple on which you would expect men to have more knowledge (e. g., that Bubba Watson is a golf pro).  But it is noteworthy that on the two purely political questions--the Supreme Court and Wayne LaPierre--men are much more likely to identify the correct answer, and no more likely to pick the incorrect answer.

This suggests that the "problem" doesn't result from a general psychological tendency of women or men--it's that most polls focus on issues that men are more likely to know about, or have opinions about.

[Source:  iPOLL, Roper Center for Public Opinin Research]

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