Can a nation's "personality" characteristics affect the human rights laws of its people? I couldn't help but ponder that question when recently reading, of all things, several intriguing peer-reviewed medical and neuroscience articles about the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii), and also while thinking back to some solid social science research conducted decades ago about traditional sex-roles and homophobia (clutch your pearls: traditional sex-roles and homophobia are highly positively correlated with one another). Below the fold is a look at how nations' levels of one personality characteristic, masculinity (M), relate to how they have wrestled (or not) with same-sex marriage (SSM) as a legal human right. But first, a bit about that ubiquitous parasite, and how I went from reading about T. gondii to thinking about masculinity and the legalization of SSM on a global level.
Recently there was some buzz about a piece of research which showed that women infected with the T. gondii parasite are one-and-a-half-times more likely to commit suicide than unaffected women. Melissa Block covered the story on NPR's "All Things Considered." Toxoplasmosis didn't drive the infected women to suicide, however. The infected women in the study were asymptomatic; T. gondii, you see, remains dormant in the body (the brain/central nervous system) long after the flu-like symptoms of active disease abate. Since cats are a necessary part of the parasite's life-cycle—T. gondii only reproduces inside the intestinal lining of cats—some in the media drew a broad (and in my opinion, stupid and sexist) conclusion about cat-owning women and their suicide risk. (Yes, without cats there would be no T. gondii, but the parasite is also found in, and transmitted to humans by, some undercooked meats and vegetables; in addition, cat-owning men can also harbor T. gondii, and in fact anyone can harbor it—about 22.5% of adults and adolescents in the United States have been infected with T. gondii—it's living in their brains right now—but let me not digress too much). The correlation between the parasite and suicide risk fascinated me: a dormant parasite residing in a human, perhaps for years or decades, might somehow alter the neurochemistry (dopamine levels) of its host's brain leading to a heightened risk of suicide? Really?
My curiosity led me to this nifty UCLA website. It visually explains the parasite's lifecycle (see the second slide). The website also summarizes a study examining the parasite and aggregate personality traits of nations. Intrigued, I then went to the fascinating source article by Kevin D. Lafferty over at UCal-Santa Barbara. (Digression #2: his amazing research was partially supported by the National Science Foundation through the NIH/NSF Ecology of Infectious Disease Program, demonstrating to me once again that government-funded research is a critically important expenditure).
Dr. Lafferty's paper, "Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?", shows us that: (a) T. mondii has long-term effects on an individual person's personality; (b) countries with high T. gondii prevalence rates show higher aggregate neuroticism scores compared to lower prevalence countries; and (c) Western nations with high T. gondii prevalence rates score higher on measures of masculinity (M) compared to lower prevalence Western nations. That last finding triggered my memory of decades-old social science research showing that the more traditional views one has about sex-roles, the more homophobic one is likely to be. (Yep, in the 1970s and 1980s researchers discovered that someone like Phyllis Schlafly is going to be more homophobic than someone like Gloria Steinem). I then asked myself: Is a nation's M related to how its government has dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage (SSM)? To me it makes intuitive sense that a nation which is less bound by masculinity will be more open to LGBT folks; that openess should translate to legalized SSM.
To try to provide some inkling of a possible answer to that question using Dr. Lafferty's reported data about national levels of M, I first sorted nations into five groups based on their stance toward same-sex marriage (SSM) from least to most homophobic: (1) countries where SSM is totally legal (the least homophobic group); (2) countries where SSM is legal and also countries that have at least some area where SSM is either legal or is recognized; (3) countries where SSM is legal, and countries where SSM is partly legal or recognized, and countries where at least SSM's legality has been debated by its lawmakers; (4) countries where SSM is not legal; and (5) a subset of countries where SSM is illegal and where no debate as to its possible legality has been undertaken by its politicians to date (the most homophobic group). The countries in those five groups are listed below alphabetically, by SSM category. (Again, keep in mind, I only examined countries that were in Lafferty's study). Unfortunately, four of the eleven countries that currently permit SSM had no data reported on national M scores in Lafferty's study; seven other countries where SSM is not legal that were included in Lafferty's study also had no M data reported.
Totally Legal: Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden.Next, I averaged national (aggregate) M scores of the five different groups and plotted those scores. Here are my results (click on the image to view the entire graph).
Part Legal/Recognized: "Totally Legal" countries plus, Australia, Israel, and the USA.
Legal, Part Legal/Recognized, and Illegal But Debated: "Part Legal/Recognized" countries plus, China, Columbia, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Turkey, and the UK.
Illegal: Australia, Austria, Brazil, China, Columbia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK, the USA, and Venezuela.
Illegal, Not Debated: Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Peru, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland, Venezuela.
Countries with legal SSM for whom there is no data regarding national Masculinity: Canada, Iceland, Portugal, and South Africa.
Countries without legalized SSM for whom there is no data regarding national Masculinity: Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ireland, Slovenia, Thailand, & Yugoslavia.
Got Same-Sex Marriage? Thank a Feminist
The seven countries that have legalized SSM have less than half the aggregate M compared to 25 countries that have not legalized SSM. It appears that the less masculine a nation is, the more favorably they are toward same-sex marriage. Of course, this is far from a complete or rigorous scientific analysis (indeed, the database is quite limited, I conducted no comparative statistics, and, even if I had, correlation does not equal causation). Nonetheless, the results in the graph fit with the results from a multitude of studies showing a very strong correlation between an individual's sex-role attitudes and their level of homophobia. What occurs on an individual level might also occur analogously on a national level (even to the degree that it shapes laws): the more feminist a nation becomes, the more rights LGBT people will have in that nation. Unfortunately, I could find no studies which examined this possibility. If you know of any peer-reviewed studies on national (aggregate) sex-roles (or other aggregate personality characteristics) and same-sex marriage, please tell me in the thread; I'd love to read them. As I said, I haven't been able to find any research on the subject which makes me wonder if researchers haven't even thought about the question.
Post-script: Is there an association between the parasite and SSM?
I didn't think that there would be much of one, but certainly there could be a slight negative correlation between nations' T. mondii prevalence rates and their legal acceptance of SSM. Since I knew some curious kossack would ask the question, let me say there did not appear to be any association between the parasite's prevalence and SSM, at least not in the direction expected. The T. mondii prevalence rate of the seven countries where SSM is legal averaged 27.11 (range: 8.6 to 52.7), whereas the average prevalence rate of the countries where SSM is illegal was 35.22 (range: 4.3 to 66.9).
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