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The Gender Binaries: New Study Says People Assign Gender To Numbers

A new study suggests that people assign gender to even and odd numbers.

Dickens, who had an addiction to creating florid prose for an old inanimate object, once wrote about "that sharp female newly-born called La Guillotine." Okay, so that might be a crazy example, but in many languages, non-living objects have genders. But it's kind of an outlandish phenomenon: Why do we give gender to objects? Why is my stubborn computer a male douchebag? Why is my (now-deceased) van a voluptuous babe?

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Well, it probably has to do with the fact that gender is an important part of our life, evolution, and psychology. That’s fine, but are the genders we choose for objects random and somewhat arbitrary, or informed by some kind of weird psychology? There are many data showing that having gendered objects in language changes how we think about those objects.

For example, one such study has shown that, when presented with images of objects and either men or women, Spanish and German speakers tend to think a picture of an object is more related to a picture of a man or woman if the noun of that object (which is merely thought, not spoken) is grammatically masculine or feminine. (See this review by Lera Boroditsky et al for a thorough discussion of this study and more like it.) Linguistic gendering of objects appears to be a somewhat arbitrary occurrence (the guillotine strikes me as cruelly masculine actually…also it was invented by a dude), but certainly has a retroactive effect on how we think.

A recent study, however, suggests that individuals who do not speak a gendered language (English speakers in this study) seem to subconsciously assign gender. In this case, they assigned genders to some of the most abstract objects out there: numbers. James Wilkie and Galen Bodenhausen of Northwestern university conducted several studies and found an interesting pattern — we tend to associate odd numbers with masculinity, and even numbers with femininity.

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In one exercise, Wilkie and Bodenhausen paired either of the numbers 1 and 2 with different foreign-language (Bulgarian) names. The subjects weren't familiar with the names, but were found to overwhelmingly rate names more masculine if they we're paired with the number 1 and more feminine if paired with the number 2. In a similar experiment, they replaced Bulgarian names with androgynous faces of babies and used more odd and even numbers than just 1 and 2. They found the same pattern — people thought the little baby mugs were boys if paired with, say, the number 7, and girls if paired with the number 4. Weird.

So why does this happen? Well, Wilkie and Bodenhausen don't think it is arbitrary. They argue that:

The number 1 implies a solitary entity (and in some contexts, the most dominant option) and is consistent with the themes of autonomy and power that are central to agency. In contrast, the number 2 implies a pair of linked or related objects, consistent with the relational themes that are central to communion. If this is so, then people may automatically perceive the number 1 to be masculine (as both share features of agency) and the number 2 to be feminine (as both share features of communion).

According to Wilkie and Bodenhausen, the results of their study "reflect the pervasiveness of gender as a social scaffolding for generating understandings of abstract concepts." In other words, early in life we are imbued with strong concepts, like gender, and use these psychologically powerful concepts to categorize and label abstract thoughts that don't quite have the detailed texture of concrete ones. This idea seems to fit in with our general tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate things: storms are mean, bad tools are stubborn, and old trees are wise. In that vein, numbers are masculine and feminine.

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I'm not sure I completely buy the "agency" vs. "communion" idea, though it's certainly interesting. I have no better idea as to why people think odd is masculine and even is feminine. A "3" looks like both breasts and testes. 69-ing is gender-neutral.

So, in my confusion, I took to Facebook and performed a little DIY home survey.

First of all, Wilkie and Bodenhausen's results were easily replicated, albeit casually. When asked to "match odd and even numbers with either gender," all of my trusty Facebook commenters thought even was "female" and odd was "male." There were also some interesting explanations of their choices. A sampling:

"For binary coding, I always use Female = 0, Male = 1, as it’s pictographically accurate."

"When I first read this, my mind associated even numbers with pink and odd numbers with blue. Pink being female, blue being male. I’m slightly bothered by my mind assigning gender roles to specific colours, but alas…"

"Guys odd, girls even, but only because the #8 makes me think of woman’s body, so…. yeah."

So, we're all over the place here — 0 and 1 represent genitalia, 8 is the female form, and colors are also gendered. Subjective experiences are interesting data, and when I read this study I had the same reaction as my Facebook peers and the subjects of Wilkie and Bodenhausen’s study: odd is male and even is female. There seems to be something so true about this idea (heavy on the truthiness), but it is more of a deeper feeling than an analytic thought. And that supports Wilkie and Bodenhausen's idea that it is a rooted psychological concept (they use "scaffold") superimposed on an abstract concept ("numbers").

If Wilkie and Bodenhausen are right, perhaps one really is the loneliest number, and dudes are the loneliest gender. If that’s the case, take it away Harry:

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