From John Ray's shorter notes

26 July, 2013

Sisters make you conservative?

There has been a bit of talk from both sides of politics about a recent study which appears to show that having sisters makes you conservative. I am mildly amused that the feminists at Mother Jones deigned to notice it. Don't they see women as a radicalizing influence? If not, do they concede that they are not representative of women in general? Sounds like lose, lose for them to me.

A basic problem seems to be a failure to stick to what the study actually found. To help clarify that I reproduce the journal abstract below:
Childhood Socialization and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment

By Andrew Healy & Neil Malhotra

Scholars have argued that childhood experiences strongly impact political attitudes, but we actually have little causal evidence since external factors that could influence preferences are correlated with the household environment. We utilize a younger sibling’s gender to isolate random variation in the childhood environment and thereby provide unique evidence of political socialization. Having sisters causes young men to be substantially more likely to express conservative viewpoints with regards to gender roles and to identify as Republicans. We demonstrate these results in two panel surveys conducted decades apart: the Political Socialization Panel (PSP) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). We also use data collected during childhood to uncover evidence for a potential underlying mechanism: families with more female children are more likely to reinforce traditional gender roles. The results demonstrate that previously understudied childhood experiences can have important causal effects on political attitude formation.
What the abstract above does not make entirely clear is that if your YOUNGER sibling was a sister, you were found to be more conservative than if you had a younger brother. The study looks not at sisters generally but only at younger sisters.

I am afraid that I have to ask: What about elder sisters? Or indeed what about total sisters? This focus on younger sisters only seems fishy to me. My provisional conclusion has to be that they reported on younger sisters because it was only younger sisters who showed any effect. In that case something totally different from what the authors infer is going on. I would draw no conclusions from the study.

Below is part of the Mother Jones comment on the study:

Lots of people have been looking to science to explain the differences between Democrats and Republicans. Mother Jones' Chris Mooney has published a rundown of all the brain differences suspected in the gulf between liberals and conservatives. But a new study by researchers from Loyola Marymount University and Stanford University's business school suggests another factor may play a role in forming the political brain: the gender of one's siblings. According to the study, boys with only a sister were 15 percent more likely to identify as a Republican in high school, and they were 13.5 percent more conservative in their views of women's roles than boys who only had brothers.

The reason for this difference? Not genes or neural pathways, but something more mundane: housework. The researchers speculate that boys take their cues about women's roles from an early age, and that girls tend to be assigned more traditional chores when they have a brother. Watching their sisters do this housework "teaches" boys that washing dishes and other such drudgery is simply women's work. Boys with only brothers don't seem to have this problem because the chore load at home tends to be spread around more equally. The impact on men's gender perceptions is long term, but the stark partisanship fades somewhat as men get older, the researchers say.

Perhaps even more important than the impact sisters have on men's political views is the way sisters may influence how their brothers turn out as husbands. The study found that boys with sisters grow up to be men who don't help much around the house. The researchers' data show that middle-aged men who grew up with a sister are 17 percent more likely to say their spouses did more housework than they did compared with men who had only brothers. The study suggests this might mean men's views of gender roles are permanently affected by their childhood environment. Girls weren't affected by having brothers or sisters.

The results seemed to surprise the researchers, who thought having a sister would have a liberalizing effect on boys.


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