Whether we like it or not, our parents play a big part in who we become as adults. From our taste in music to our social values, their imprint often stays with us, good or bad, well past childhood.
Now new research suggests that we still rely on them well into mid-life — at least when it comes to our health, that is. Alexandra Kissling and Corinne Reczek, a team from the Ohio State University, found that while we look to our mothers in much the same way we do when we’re children — asking them for advice and hoping they’ll be there to help us through periods of bad health, for instance — fathers act more like “cautionary tales”, examples of what not to do.
In many countries, the proportion of girls opting to pursue careers in lucrative fields such as engineering and computer science has stagnated. Despite the best efforts of schools, universities and governments, women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called “STEM” subjects. The shortage of women is particularly acute in professions with a heavy focus on maths. But why?
A recent study in PNAS suggests that the answer may lie in differences in ability between boys and girls. But surprisingly, the ability in question is not maths, but reading. In a nutshell, girls who are good at maths tend to be even better at reading, and as a result, many turn away from maths and opt instead to pursue careers that utilise their even stronger language skills. By contrast, boys who are good at maths tend not to show this same advantage in reading, making their decision to stick with STEM subjects much more straightforward.
The role of birth order in shaping who we are has been a matter of some debate in psychology. Recent research has cast doubt on the idea that an individual’s position in relation to their siblings influences their personality, for instance. But there may be other domains where birth order is still important: in particular, researchers have found that children with a greater number of older siblings seem to have worse verbal skills.
However, a new study published in Psychological Science has found that the situation is a bit more complicated than that. Young children with an older sibling do indeed perform worse on language measures, the authors find — but only if that sibling is a brother.
Over the last half century Western European countries have enjoyed a large increase in gender equality. There is a long way to go, but some statistics are striking: for instance, in Germany the employment rate for women has increased from 48 per cent in 1980 to 73 per cent in 2014. Psychologists are interested in whether, and how, these kind of societal-level changes filter down and affect children’s conceptions of gender.
To find out, a team at the University of Münster and Osnabrück University, led by Bettina Lamm, has compared the way that young German children in 1977 drew a human figure with the way that age-matched German children in 2015 drew a figure. The results, published in Sex Roles, suggest two parallel changes: girls in 2015 more often chose to draw a female figure than girls in 1977; at the same time, the children tested in 2015 depicted female figures as more distinctly feminine than the children in the 1970s.
“Societal changes over the last four decades in West Germany have clearly generated two trends,” the researchers said. “… growing status equality between the genders on the one hand, and increasing gender differentiation, on the other.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is an ongoing debate about the existence of differences between women’s and men’s brains, and the extent to which these might be linked to biological or to cultural factors. In this debate, a real game-changer of a study would involve the identification of clear-cut sex differences in foetal brains: that is, in brains that have not yet been exposed to all the different expectations and experiences that the world might offer. A recent open-access study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience by Muriah Wheelock at the University of Washington and her colleagues, including senior researcher Moriah Thomason at New York University School of Medicine, claims to have done just that, hailed by the researchers themselves as “confirmation that sexual dimorphism in functional brain systems emerges during human gestation” and in various ways by the popular press as, for example, The Times of London’s headline: “Proof at last: women and men are born to be different”.
Does this study live up to the claims made by its authors and, more excitedly, those passing the message on? I think not.
It’s well known that teenagers’ moods go through drastic changes. In particular, depressive symptoms – like feelings of low mood or self-loathing – tend to increase as they grow older. Now researchers have plotted out the exact trajectory of these depressive symptoms. In their recent paper in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Alex Kwong and colleagues from the University of Bristol report for the first time the points during teen development when symptoms increase most rapidly, on average – and they find that these timings differ between young men and women.
With the number of referrals to the UK’s only gender identity development service (GIDS, at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust) increasing sharply in recent years – a pattern seemingly mirrored in other European countries and the US (anecdotally, at least — many countries don’t keep comprehensive data the way the UK does) – debate has inevitably intensified over how best to help transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) youth. As some expert clinicians have pointed out, there has been a tendency for commentators, campaigners and the general public to adopt an oversimplified view in which therapists are seen as fitting one of two categories: those who don’t believe their clients when they say they are trans (and who are therefore condemned by trans advocacy groups for practicing conversion therapy), and others who simply accept their clients’ statements about their gender, and who are therefore affirming or affirmative.
The clinical reality is more complicated: these days, there is a welcome consensus against actual conversion therapy — forcing a young person to “go back” to being cisgender — but at the same time responsible clinicians do not simply nod along to what a young person with gender dysphoria says. There are complexities inherent to childhood and adolescent development, and many experts warn it’s important not to accidentally medicalise perfectly normal qualms about growing up, hitting puberty, and being exposed to powerful and often frustratingly restrictive gender roles. Young people present at gender clinics with a wide variety of issues ranging from comorbid mental-health issues to unexamined trauma, and the process of helping them determine the best path forward, particularly with regard to medical interventions like puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones, is a lot more complicated than making a rapid decision to deny or approve such interventions.
Indeed, in an open-access practice review published in the BMJ last year, clinicians at UCL, GIDS and Great Ormond Street Hospital explained that the thorough psychosexual assessment period for such clients “usually takes 6 months or more over a minimum of four to six sessions” and involves a range of psychometric measures and interviews, covering the client’s expectations and understanding of social and physical transition, their mood and emotional functioning. The review adds that, “With the adolescents, there is an in-depth consideration of their sexuality and fertility, and possible preservation approaches are discussed. The attitude of important people in the child’s life towards gender dysphoria needs to be explored and understood.”
Now a study published in Psychology & Sexuality by a pair of Norwegian researchers, Reidar Schei Jessen and Katrina Roen, has explored these complexities from clinical psychologists’ perspective, including what it means to help a young person work through the issues they are facing and to make important decisions about medical treatment.
The APA report has been criticised on many grounds, including its oversight of the biological roots of masculinity, but the most frequently mentioned issue is with the overly simplistic, sweeping nature of the “masculinity is toxic” message. Traditional masculinity clearly reflects a host of values, beliefs and behaviours, some of which may indeed be harmful in certain circumstances, but some of which may also be beneficial, at least some of the time. Coincidentally, a paper in the January issue of the APA journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity captures just a little of this complexity.
For every girl with ADHD, there are three boys with the same diagnosis. But among adults, the gender ratio is more like 1:1. That’s a big discrepancy. So what’s going on?
In 2017, Aja Louise Murray and colleagues investigated possible predictors of childhood vs. later (adolescent/adult-onset) ADHD, and they found hints that girls tend to develop ADHD at a later age than boys. Now a team that includes the same researchers has investigated this explicitly and in their paper in Developmental Science, they’ve confirmed it seems to be the case, which could partially explain the discrepancy in the ADHD gender ratio between children and adults.
After spending a day exploring a new city and it’s time to return to your hotel, do you tend to rely on landmarks and routes that you’ve learned, or do you consult a “mental map” that you’ve created of the area, to try to devise a short-cut back? If you’re a man, you’re more likely to try the latter – whereas women tend to use routes they know, according to a new paper in Memory and Cognition by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara.