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The Determination of Gender Identity and Biopsychology

Montag, 10. Oktober 2011 - 16:32

The content of this paper is the explanation of  “the interaction between hormones and behavior and how this interaction affects the determination of gender identity” (Lazarre, 2008, p. 11). Here, gender identity is approached from a male and female vintage point to examine the biological differences and similarities of the two. Thus, the evaluation of biological factors and “environmental influences on sexual differentiation and gender identity” (Lazarre, 2008, p. 11) is of main focus. Biopsychology considers gender from the perspective of the functioning of the sexual organs and their underlying physiology (Wickens, 2005). As a result, an evaluation about the nature or nurture issue on gender identity is given and the question where the greater influence rests is responded to.

The Interaction of Hormones and Behavior

A difference between male and female brains underlie sex and gender differences. This intriguing statement has been put forward in recent years by psychologists studying brain structure and functioning (Oerter & Montada, 2002). For example, psychologists found that groups of children with exceptional talent in mathematics were characterized by an unusual assortment of physical attributes, such as an overrepresentation of left-handedness and a high incidence of allergies and shortsightedness. Such seemingly unrelated characteristics, it turns out, may be associated with the degree of prenatal exposure to androgens, male sex hormones, which may slow the growth of the left hemisphere of the brain (Oerter & Montada, 2002). According to one theory, the right hemisphere of the brain – which specializes in mathematical problems – then compensates for the deficiencies of the left hemisphere by becoming strengthend, thereby leading to the increased abilities of males in mathematical spheres (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). Similarly, evidence from at least one study suggests that women perform better on tasks involving verbal skill and muscular coordination during periods when their production of the female sex hormone, estrogen, is relatively high then when it is low. In contrast, they perform better on tasks involving spatial relationships when their estrogen level is relatively low (Wickens, 2005).

Psychologists do not know yet the extent to which biological causes may underlie sex differences, but the evidence is growing that such factors may explain, at least in part, behavioral differences between men and women. The human brain plays a vital role in the sexual behavior of male and female. Especially the hypothalamus and the amygdala, which are the most important parts of the brain stem, are one of the control centers of sexual functioning (Wickens, 2005). However, it is also clear that environmental factors have a critical effect in producing sex and gender differences. Moreover, because environmental factors can be changed, such influences offer us the opportunity to decrease the detrimental effects of sex stereotyping.

Environmental Influences on Gender Identity

Starting from the moment of birth, with blue blankets for boys and pink ones for girls, most parents and other adults provide environments that differ in important respects. The kinds of toys that are given to boys and girls differ, and fathers play more roughly with their infant sons than with their daughters. Middle-class mothers tend to talk more to their daughters than to their sons. Such differences in behavior, and there are many more, produce different socialization experiences for men and women. In this case, socialization refers to learning what society calls appropriate behavior for men and women. According, then, to the processes of social-learning theory, boys and girls are taught (and rewarded for performing) behaviors that are thought, by society, to be appropriate for men and women, respectively (Kowalski & Westen, 2005).

It is not just parents, of course, who provide socialization for children. Society as a whole communicates clear messages to children as they are growing up. Television, for instance, is a particularly potent source of socialization. Men still outnumber women on television and women often are cast in such stereotypic roles as housewife, secretary, and mother. The potency of television as a socialization force is indicated. The effects of gender go well beyond the mere biological fact of a body which harbors male and female sex organs. One’s conclusion about what is or is not an appropriate behavior for others and oneself are based on gender roles which is a set of expectations, defined by society, that indicate what is appropriate behavior for men and women (Oerter & Montada, 2002).

Evaluation of the  Nature or Nurture Issue on Gender Identity

Although the prevalence and clarity of gender stereotypes might lead one to expect that actual differences between men’s and women’s behavior are large, the reality is quite different. In fact, considering the differences between men and women that have been well documented, it is important to remember that in most respects men and women are more similar to one another then they are different. Moreover, when differences have been found, their magnitude is usually small. When one compares men and women, then keep in mind that there is more overlap in behavior and psychological characteristics than there is discrepancy between the sexes. The differences that have been found reflect average male and female group differences and tell us nothing about any given male or female. Even if one finds that males, on the whole, tend to be more aggressive than females, there are going to be many men who are less aggressive than most women, just there will be many women who act more aggressively than most men (Oerter & Montada, 2002).

In sum, developmental psychologists take an interactionist position on the nature-nurture issue, suggesting that a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental influences produce gender identity. The challenge which biopsychologists face is to identify the specific kind and relative strength of each of theses influences on the individual. The search for the influence of nature and nurture is not merely academic. Important advances in our understanding of the optimal way to treat children have come from research on heredity and the environment. For instance, the way in which one educates children, how children in institutions such as orphanages are raised, and the kinds of day-care are considered optimal have all been influenced by one’s understanding of the interaction of biology and environment regarding gender identity (Kowalski & Westen, 2005).

Beate Landgraf

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2005). Psychology. (4th ed.). 36. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Lazarre, S. (2008). Biological Foundations of Psychology. 11. Syllabus PSY340. University of  Phoenix, Arizona. Retrieved June, 30, 2008 from UoP online course PSY340.
Oerter, R., & Montada, L. (2002). Entwicklunspsychologie. (5. Auflage). [Developmental Psychology. (5th ed.)]. Berlin, Germany: Beltz Verlag.
Wickens, A. (2005). Foundations of Biopsychology. (2nd ed). Harlow, England: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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