OBSESSION….Larry Summers famously got into trouble for suggesting that although men and women have the same mean intelligence, men seem to exhibit greater variability at the extremes. Thus, there are more men than women at the very low end of the IQ scale and more men than women at the very tippy top of the IQ scale. Megan McArdle says she’s comfortable with this idea, but Brad DeLong isn’t:
Put me down as somebody who is not comfortable with the idea that male distributions have “fatter tails” than female ones. The small size of the Y chromosome that makes males genetically fragile is an argument for a fat lower tail in the male distribution, not “fatter tails.” The genetic argument-from-brainpower has to go something like: “male Y — genetically fragile — much greater susceptibility to autism-spectrum disorders — have no social and family life — hence don’t mind working all the time.” I don’t think it works.
Ah, but this gets the argument subtly wrong. I think the more persuasive argument — and I should say up front that I don’t know of anything other than anecdotal evidence for this — goes like this. First, men have a greater tendency to obsess over things than women: finishing their coin collections, practicing their jump shots, programming their computers, etc. Second, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, abstract thinking at a high level often benefits from extreme levels of concentration — something that’s not quite the same as “working all the time” — so it stands to reason that if you combine extreme smarts with extreme obsession you’re likely to produce a greater range of interesting work than you would with extreme smarts alone. Third, if men exhibit this combination more than women, it might partially explain their overrepresentation in fields that reward extreme levels of concentration.
Of course, “stands to reason” is not the same thing as “is.” There are several empirical questions that need to be answered here. Do men tend to obsess over things more than women? Does obsession (sometimes) produce interesting and creative breakthroughs that smarts alone wouldn’t have produced? Does obsession have any basis in male biology? I don’t know if any of these questions have consensus answers, but they are certainly interesting questions to ask.
POSTSCRIPT: This question of obsession (dramatized memorably by Vernor Vinge as “focus” in A Deepness in the Sky) interests me for a couple of reasons. First, boys and men really do seem to exhibit much greater degrees of obsession than girls and women in a wide variety of activities. Why? Second, as someone with a modest version of the obsession gene myself, I know what it feels like. Answer: it feels great. It’s addictive. And at least subjectively, it feels like an entirely different mode of thinking than normal, everyday cogitation. Blogging doesn’t lend itself to obsession (for me, anyway), and frankly, my life seems grayer without it. That might seem crazy, but it’s the truth.