Counting on Gender

Lesya Chopivsky | alexandra.chopivsky@yale.edu March 18, 2012

After roughly the first year of life, humans begin to categorize the world around them. Gender is one of the earliest and most pervasive of these categories. Courtesy of Navigating Airports.

Sour cream and a round trashcan: what do these objects have in common? How about a square table and a T-bone steak? Surprising studies reveal that items in the first group tend to be associated with femininity whereas items in the second group tend to be linked to masculinity. Categorization plays an essential role in how people view the world. New research explores the potential connection between gender categorization and abstract concepts such as numbers.

A recent study by Northwestern University Ph.D. student James Wilkie and professor Galen Bodenhausen investigated the projection of gender on numbers by asking 74 American participants to rate 18 unfamiliar names on a scale from one to seven, with one being “extremely feminine” and seven being “extremely masculine.” Half the participants rated Bulgarian names, while the other half rated Spanish names. All names were preceded by a “1” or a “2,” but participants were told that these numbers were simply a way for researchers to identify from which “bin” the name had come. In addition to names, participants then rated ten objects on the same seven-point scale.

Interestingly, the experiment found that names labeled “1” were rated as more masculine than those labeled “2.” Results of the explicit ratings of “1” and “2” confirmed the gender association of each number, although participants did not report that the number before a name influenced their gender rating.

Wilkie and Bodenhausen hypothesize that the cause of this attribution may be due to what they refer to as communion and agency. The idea of agency includes human characteristics associated with independence and achievement, while the concept of communion describes nurturing and relationship-oriented human characteristics. Extrapolating from these two categories, Wilkie and Bodenhausen suggest that the number “1,” a number associated with dominance and solidarity, is linked to the agency category. Therefore, it is also linked to the male gender, as similar characteristics are used to describe both concepts. “2,” a number associated with linked pairs, is related to the communion dimension and thus, they hypothesize, to the more nurturing and relationship-oriented female gender.

Researchers are now exploring the connection between gender association and numbers. One theory for this association is the “personality” of even or odd numbers. Courtesy of Hold it Baby!

Matt Lebowitz, a graduate student in Yale professor of psychology Woo-kyoung Ahn’s lab, explains that forming categories is a “basic feature of human cognition,” because it can help humans figure out an unfamiliar concept. “It’s just like the idea that you don’t have to have specific familiarity with every Apple product, because when you see the logo, you know that the product will have some of the same software,” Lebowitz says.

According to Yale psychology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies professor Marianne LaFrance, this research about gender and number association is most fascinating because of what it reveals about society. “Gender,” she explains, “ for most people represents a central organizing way to view the world.” Although children may describe themselves as male or female before age one, it is around eight months that a child will begin to know that he or she is male or female and different from the opposite gender. “From that point in life, most everything is garnered under that concept,” LaFrance explains.

By combining this information with Yale Professor John Barge’s research about embodied cognition, LaFrance presents a possible justification for why we assign gender to a concept as abstract as numbers. The theory of embodied cognition says that most of our concepts of the world come first as physical things. Thus, in the case of gender associations, LaFrance suggests that children first realize they are biologically different from the opposite sex and then form “gender scaffolding.” Consequently, LaFrance says, “we put on the scaffold of gender everything else in life; it is one of the earliest ways that we divvy up the world.”

LaFrance emphasizes, however, that this research is more important than simply providing evidence that numbers may be the latest concept hung on the gender scaffolding. “Gender continues to be a pervasive, consistently present way of categorizing the world,” LaFrance explains. And this research further reveals the importance society places on gender schematicity, and its significance to understanding social interactions.