4.3. Desire for Freedom as a Motive for Continued Acceptance of the Kagan-Moss Misinterpretation
When scientists persist in holding incorrect views, unsupported or even contradicted by evidence, chances are that an emotional commitment [29
] to a philosophical [30
] or political [31
] position may be involved. One emotional commitment that may explain the continued acceptance of Kagan and Moss’s misinterpretation of their data is an attachment to the concept of free will or self-determination over the idea that human behavior is determined by laws of nature outside of our control. In the words of Rhoda Unger, the question is whether “reality constructs the person” or “the person constructs reality” [33
] (p. 17). At issue are questions about whether the mind is a product of physical matter, subject to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics, or whether human beings can somehow transcend their biology and physical environment to become self-determining through autonomous thinking and free will [30
The notion that people possess enduring, stable personality traits of any sort is an anathema to many psychologists (both professional and lay) who value individual freedom and self-determination [34
]. To possess stable personality traits is to be stuck into what Walter Mischel called “fixed slots” [35
] (p. 740) or “fixed positions” [36
] (p. 351). For Mischel and others who value freedom and self-determination, the real reason for rejecting stable, enduring personality traits is not lack of empirical evidence for stability but because the concept of personality stability is perceived to undermine freedom [34
However, one cannot argue scientifically against stable personality traits by saying, “I don’t like the idea of stable traits because it contradicts the value I place on freedom.” So, initially, trait deniers attempted to marshal evidence that stable personality traits do not exist, that behavior depends upon the situation more than on traits. Thus, the person-situation debate in psychology [38
] raged on for two decades despite the logical impossibility of demonstrating that situations or personality traits are stronger determinants of behavior. Asking whether situations or personality traits contribute more toward behavior is like asking whether the properties of a solvent or crystalline substances contribute more toward dissolving behavior in chemistry [39
]. Chemists long ago understood that such a question would be pointless and that the appropriate research question is, “What is it about the structure of substances and liquids such that in some cases dissolving occurs, and in other cases, it does not?” [40
] (p. 251). The answer lies in the structure or crystalline materials and solvents. In contrast, “situationists” avoided questions about the stable personality structures, instead trying to demonstrate that environmental situations are always stronger determinants of behavior than personality traits.
“Situationism” was comfortably consistent with social learning theory of the early 1960s. Rooted in behaviorism, early social learning theories stressed environmental reinforcers as determinants of a person’s behavior [27
]. According to social learning theory, parents reward their sons and daughters for sex-role-appropriate behavior and punish inappropriate behavior. As children develop, their peers continue to reinforce masculine behavior for boys and feminine behavior for girls. This reinforcement persists throughout adulthood. Expected behaviors for men and women have been consistent over across cultures for decades, despite changes in sex roles and attitudes toward them in modern, western cultures [15
]. Social learning theory’s assumption that social expectations for men and women cause sex differences in personality is what led Kagan and Moss to misinterpret their correlations as evidence that masculine traits are more stable for males and feminine traits are more stable for females. Psychologists who wanted women and men to be free from gender stereotyping accepted this misinterpretation because they believed that gender equality could be achieved by simply changing attitudes about sex roles in society.
But not all psychologists who valued freedom saw situationism as a way out of the perceived prison of sex-typed personality traits. Among these psychologists was Walter Mischel himself. Mischel expressed disconcertedness about his publications being cited approvingly by situationists, and he denied being a situationist [35
]. Mischel realized that attributing behavior to situations was just as deterministic as attributing behavior to personality traits. Consequently, Mischel’s versions of social learning theory became less behavioristic in wording and more cognitive over time. His original view of the development of sex differences leaned heavily on the traditional behavioristic concept of environmental reinforcement [40
]. Mischel later added cognitive variables to his theory and renamed it cognitive social learning theory [41
]. Eventually, his work with Nancy Cantor on cognitive prototypes in person perception [42
] contributed to the cognitive-schema approach in personality, social psychology, and gender [43
]. As Mischel’s social learning theory became more cognitive, it abandoned the behaviorist assumption that fixed realities create people and adopted the position that people create reality. Cognitive social learning theory holds that if there is consistency of behavior, it is not due to the environmental situation or fixed personality traits but because of active cognitive processes that lead to free choices to be consistent.
Whereas Walter Mischel has been dedicated to arguing for freedom and flexibility for everyone, feminist psychologists have been particularly concerned about women’s freedom to become whomever they choose to be. They have objected to the notion that women have fixed, feminine traits that limit their freedom. Feminist psychologists have been particularly dismissive of claims that women have traits that make them inferior to men, claims that have been used to justify paying women less than men for the same work and excluding women from high-paying jobs and positions of leadership and power. In the 1970s, when feminist psychologists began their own research that compared men and women, they expected to disconfirm stereotypic sex differences in personality traits and abilities, thereby increasing women’s chances for equal opportunity in society [32
However, by the mid-1990s, meta-analyses of research on sex differences demonstrated that moderate sex differences exist for some personality traits, that research finding these differences is more consistent than inconsistent, that these results are not a function of artifacts, and that the specific findings support the stereotype that women tend to have higher levels of empathy and nurturance while men tend to have higher levels of aggressiveness and toughness [32
Despite the fact that people have a more favorable overall view of women than men [32
], some feminists were displeased by the confirmation of stereotypic, sex-related personality traits. Because high-status role in society were thought to require aggressiveness and toughness, these feminists did not want to believe that men are inherently tougher or more aggressive than women. Some feminists therefore began arguing that personality traits themselves are mere constructions about reality rather than objective characteristics of reality. In the words of Rhoda Unger, the person constructs reality rather than reality constructs the person [33
The position that people construct reality, often called constructivism, dismisses objective, physical reality as a determinant of human behavior. Constructivists claim that we determine our own behavior by the way in which we think about reality. Constructivism that involves conversations with other people is called social constructivism. According to social constructivists, social interaction creates meanings, and these jointly-constructed meanings govern subsequent social interaction [45
]. From the perspective of social constructivism, traits such as empathy, nurturance, aggression, and toughness and differences between men and women on these traits exist only in our conversations, not as objective facts about an independent reality. Social constructivists believe that freedom from the constraints of personality language can be achieved simply by changing the conversation.
4.4. Social Constructivists’ Political Arguments against Biology
Social constructivists regard conversations about biology as especially harmful to freedom. Constructivists often assume that describing personality traits as biologically-based implies that these traits are “stable, universal, and immutable” whereas speaking of traits as socially constructed means that the traits “are more variable and easily changed … (Consequently) neither social learning, cognitive developmental, or schema approaches have approached the consideration of biological influences on gender-role development in systematic ways” [46
] (p. 965). According to Jeanne Marecek, constructivists do not necessarily deny biological differences between the sexes, “(b)ut they do deny that such differences have a single, fixed meaning and salience whether from one culture to another, one historical period to another, one social group to another, or even from time to time in an individual’s experience” [45
] (p. 162). As far as constructivists are concerned, biology is “just another way of knowing, and, moreover, contrived mostly by European and American white males” [47
] (p. 45).
For individuals who want to increase the economic status and political power of women, social constructivism is a hopeful message that reformers want to believe because economic and political equality can be achieved simply by changing the way we converse about women and men. In contrast, the idea that immutable biological factors underlie status and power seems to be a message of despair; it is a message that reformers do not want to believe. Social constructivist assumptions are bolstered by American ideology, which holds that people are born equal and that anyone can achieve the American dream in this land of opportunity [48
]. When the desire for freedom and equality causes people to adopt social constructivism, this is an example of motivated cognition.
Psychologists have generally adhered to the traditional scientific assumption that a natural reality existed before human beings evolved on this planet and that this preexisting reality creates human beings rather than the other way around. Although psychologists might be sympathetic to the view that people construct models or representations of reality with language, the standard scientific view is that people do not construct reality itself. Furthermore, the usefulness of a model of reality depends on its verisimilitude, by its goodness-of-fit with reality as it actually is. To think that persons literally construct reality with their thoughts and conversations would strike most psychologists as wishful thinking or even magical thinking.
Wishful thinking that underlies an argument is a logical error sometimes referred to as the moralistic fallacy [50
]. The moralistic fallacy (“X ought to be; therefore X is”) is the converse of the naturalistic fallacy (“X is; therefore X ought to be”). In the present context, social constructivists who wish people to be free from limiting, gender-related personality traits commit the moralistic fallacy when they propose arguments such as “Men and women ought to be equal. Therefore, women are just as strong as men and men are just as empathetic as women [52
This is not to say that only social constructivists have personal agendas that lead them into logical fallacies. Biologically oriented researchers have also demonstrated motivated cognition and fallacious thinking. Darwin himself thought that men were inherently intellectually superior to women, and it is now common knowledge that arguments about what is biologically natural have been used to justify racism and sexism for at least 100 years after Darwin [53
]. But motivated cognition can also be seen in biologically oriented researchers with good rather than dark intentions. Consider the following admission by Judith Harris [54
], who wrote a book arguing that parents have little influence on the way their children turn out: “One of Harris’s ‘primary motivations for writing the book,’ she says in an e-mail, was ‘to lighten the burden of guilt and blame placed on the parents of “problem” children’” [55
] (p. 59). Although parents have thanked her for this, some psychologists have accused her of rationalizing the neglect and mistreatment of children. Among them was the same Jerome Kagan who misinterpreted correlations in the Fels Institute study. Concerning Judith Harris’s motives, he said, “I am embarrassed for psychology” [55
] (p. 54).
Some persons believe that an inquiry into the personal agendas underlying research automatically constitutes an inappropriate, ad hominem (or ad feminam) attack on the researcher. Others [56
] believe that studying the psychological processes that lead to scientific knowledge claims can further increase our knowledge of a subject domain.
In their chapter, “Scientists are People,” McCain and Segal [64
] discuss the various motives that underlie research. That research is motivated by the personal concerns of researchers seems to be inevitable, but this is not necessarily a lamentable state of affairs. From the social constructivist viewpoint, personal motivations are problematic only when they fail to help realize the goal of increased freedom. From a naturalistic viewpoint, personal motivations are troublesome only when they lead us away from truth. The final section of this article suggests that the goal of increased freedom can be achieved more effectively by accepting rather than denying biological truths.