Monday, February 25, 2013

Sex and brain differences

Embarking on the journey of reading "zillions" of papers for several different fields, amongst others emerges gender and stereotype threat as required areas. Organizing materials, I've crossed one of several MIT books - Sex and the Brain (Gillian Einstein, 2007). In a brilliant introduction, the author "sets the pace" for talking about sex and brain:

"(...) when purporting to show sex differences, let’s lay out what is meant when we use the expression ‘‘dimorphism’’ (...) that literally means ‘‘of two forms,’’ and this is an interesting formulation of sexual display in all its variations. It means that there are two forms of behavior, two forms of what things look like, two mechanisms underlying those forms: female and male. XX and XY. (...) This is a key concept in this field and underlies the interpretation of the science — that there are, indeed, two distinct forms."

If female and male sexual behaviors differ and behavior is mediated by the brain (via endocrine system), one hypothesis is "that just as the body has a phenotype, so does the brain" and the book includes a section building on that hypothesis. But, because much of making two sexes is a biological process, things do not always go according to plan and many research findings postulate that there "may be at least five sexes" and that it is a "disservice to nature to insist on only two".  
Sex differences and the brain are a sexy theme for so long!!
Einstein challenges the reader:"Ask yourself if, just like the rest of the body, diferentiation of the brain into two distinct types might not also be less likely. Attend to suppositions about what is ‘‘female’’ and what is ‘‘male’’ (...)."
People love to speculate about differences between the sexes, and neuroscience technology for brain imaging has boosted the number of studies published reporting sex differences in the brain structure and/or in patterns of neural activity.

But, as one of my MsC teachers once said "Please, not so fast!"
How to interpret sex differences in the brain can be a problem and "you need to understand that neuroscience is only at the beginning of understand how neural activity brings about complex psychological phenomena" he said. And looking quite worried, he continued "Do not fall in the temptation, to which some popular writers have been vulnerable to, of using gender stereotypes to bridge that gap in scientific knowledge. Do not fall on temptation of getting an answer the the age-old question “Why can’t a woman think or act like a man?” (or vice-versa).  Do dare instead to ask; should they? must they? why? You now acknowlegde that XX and XY are two distintic forms with own distintive behaviors, so think back on how behavior - even sexual - is situational and influenced by other so many other cues."

Fields of research for my MsC thesis

Here it is! My MsC project research was approved! Yeah!
The research and experimental work will be developed under support of the Cognitive Psychology and Social Psychology departments of FPUL (Faculdade de Psicologia/Psychology Faculty) at University of Lisbon .

The main focus is Judgment and Decision Making (the mental and cognitive processes that result in the selection of an action / choice among several alternative scenarios/options), grounded in the dual process theory that accounts for two different systems for decision making; System 1 (automatic, unconscious, implicit, associative and heuristic) and System 2  (evolutionarily recent, explicit, rule-based and analytical, monitored and controlled).

It has proven over and over that humans often violate "rationality" (ruled by logic, statistics, expected utility theory or other normative models of rational decision) and instead of making decisions based on those models, we tend to use heuristics that sometimes lead to commit systematic errors or biases. It is accepted that when deciding, quite often human use the "first that comes to mind" which means that preventing errors requires ability to resist to that intuitive response!

Stanovich attempts to resolve the "great rationality debate" in Cognitive Science, explaining why humans are sometimes irrational even though they possess remarkably adaptive cognitive machinery (reason why IQ tests fail!) using arguments that "we need to replace dual-process theories with tripartite models of cognition". In this line, the traditional System 2 of the dual-process theory must be further divided into the "reflective mind" and the " algorithmic mind" where the key function of the reflective mind is to detect the need to interrupt autonomous processing and to begin simulation activities, whereas that of the algorithmic mind is to sustain (control) the processing of decoupled secondary representations in cognitive simulation.

This is key path for research;  Why do we mistake our answers? What are the representational and processing factors of judgment and decision making? And do negative emotions provoked by gender stereotype threath count for performance differences?

I'm on the run.... excited!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Leadership and Management; different flavours of the same thing?

In Harvard Business Review dated January 9, John Kotter  writes an interesting article titled "Management Is (Still) Not Leadership".

The author's arguments are that management is a set of well-known processes, like planning, budgeting, structuring jobs, staffing jobs, measuring performance and problem-solving, which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well. Management helps you to produce products and services of consistent quality, on budget, day after day, week after week. In organizations of any size and complexity, this is an enormously difficult task. Kotter says that we constantly underestimate how complex this task really is, especially when people are not in senior management jobs. So, the author sustains that management is crucial — but it's not leadership because leadership is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it's about behaviors.

After more than 20 years of working experience, still often I find my self unable to take party in discussions that tend to divide in such a strict way the fields of management and leadership. Having done "the talk and walk" from business administration, management and leadership perspectives I acknowledge that in this "ever-faster-moving world", leadership is needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a hierarchy, no matter what their functional role.

So, what is the difference between a leader (who sets goals, organizes, uplifts and motivates people, and controls their performance), and a manager? Jorge Vasconcellos e Sá poses the question and gives the answer in his 2012 book (Title: There is no leadership: only effective management); "A leader must manage, and a manager has to lead. They are one and the same thing”. And, from Kotter's point of view "The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous, and it's a recipe for failure."