One type of gender bias is alpha bias. This is the tendency to exaggerate differences between males and females. An example of this is heightening the value of women (e.g. Gilligan’s theory of moral development), and a contrasting example is devaluing them (e.g. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, which says that women develop inferior superegos). Another type of gender bias is beta bias, which is the tendency to overlook differences or exaggerate similarities between the sexes. This was an issue in Kohlberg’s theory of the development of moral understanding, as his classifications were largely based on justice-based morality for both men and women, when it may be that women have different moral values.
Many psychological studies have been criticised for being androcentric. An example of this is Milgram’s (1963) research into obedience. This bias was particularly methodological: he used only male participants, meaning that it is possible that the findings only apply to males and do not generalise to females. This criticism is supported by a replica study by Kilham & Mann (1974), who used both male and female participants, 16% of the female participants obeyed and administered the full shock, compared with 40% of the males. This significant difference was overlooked by Milgram’s study as he only studied male behaviour.
Both of these pieces of research were conducted in a laboratory setting, which is criticised by feminists for being a male-dominated environment that disadvantages women and feminine behaviour: this may have influenced how some of the participants in both studies acted, in that they may have otherwise acted differently if the setting was more natural. The feminist criticism would suggest that, in Kilham & Mann’s study, less women would obey in real life; however this criticism may itself be criticised for alpha bias and reductionism, since it may be too simplistic to characterise behaviours and settings as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
A theory criticised for its alpha bias is the sociobiological theory of interpersonal attraction. The theory states that males and females look for different characteristics in either sex, and will emphasise certain aspects of their own characteristics in order to attract a partner of the opposite sex. Dunbar (1995) compared around 900 ‘lonely hearts’ advertisements from four newspapers in the United States, and found that 42% of males sought physically attractive characteristics in their partner, compared to 22% of women; and 50% of females adv ertised their own physical attraction, compared with 34% of males.
Their conclusion was that the theory was supported and, while this is true to a certain extent, it overlooks the fact that the theory holds true for a maximum of 50% of participants. That is, it was not all males and no females who said that they sought a physically attractive partner. The research therefore demonstrates the alpha bias of both the theory and Dunbar’s conclusions. In addition, the sample and setting of the theory may produce alpha bias.
It may be that dating agencies augment gender differences in order to optimise success rates, even if this is not representative of real life. Subsequently, people submitting their own advertisements may conform to this norm of augmenting their own gender, therefore leading to a biased sample and, therefore, biased results. This research could be improved by using a more representative sample, such as using a random sample from a wide range of places for a questionnaire. This is especially important since the sociobiological theory is an evolutionary theory, in that it assumes that our desires are innate: it is therefore important to gain a sample from multiple cultures.
Numerous other theories and research have been criticised for their gender bias. Freud’s psychosexual theory of development is particularly vulnerable to this criticism, as it is androcentric. He claimed that women have inferior superegos to men because they do not have a penis, leading to penis envy which would never be fully resolved. In other words, the theory suggests that femininity is a sort of failed masculinity.
This is contrary to the widely accepted idea that women and men, despite their differences, are equal; and even Freud (1925) admitted his gender bias, saying that ‘we must not allow ourselves to regard the two sexes in completely equal in position and worth’. In reaction to this, Homey (1926) said that it did not make sense that women would envy a man’s penis, instead envying their higher social status (at the time). Horney also coined the term womb envy, which describe’s a man’s envy of women for their ability to have children, therefore providing a less androcentric view by indicating that men and women are different and envy each other’s positive characteristics.
Kohlberg’s (1976) theory of moral development has been criticised for beta bias and androcentricism. In his research, he presented participants with moral dilemmas and categorised them with respect to how much they had matured morally based on their responses to the questions subsequently asked. However, this may be seen as androcentric due to the criteria required for categorisation: the dilemmas were based on abstract principles of justice, which Gillian (1982) proposed was an inherently male method of thinking. This meant that Kohlberg’s findings classified most women as being morally inferior to men because of the beta bias of the theory.
Gilligan (1982), instead, proposed that women’s morals are based on care and relationships, whilst those of men are based on justice. However, this theory shows alpha bias, and the existance of this bias is demonstrated by her own findings that roughly as many women base their morals on justice as on care. In fact, Walker (1984) found, in a meta-analysis of 108 studies, that only 8 studies showed overall gender differences in morality (which, ironically, displays beta-bias). It may be that the alpha- and beta-bias in such studies arise due to a lack of explanation of individual differences, as it is rarely the case that there are no differences between men and women, or that men and women are completely different.