Sex Differences Less than Supposed. Maybe.

by F.

This summary of recent research in The Economist suggests men and women aren’t all that different. Even the apparent gap in spatial and mathematical reasoning can be narrowed with certain training. Verbal ability is pretty much the same, though women are better at speling. This research won’t make Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus any less popular, of course.

Here’s one interesting tidbit on aggression, which may seem counterintuitive, depending on your experience:

A study done in 1994 hints that if women think nobody is watching and judging them, and there are no physical consequences, they might be more aggressive than men.

In this study, participants played a video game in which they defended themselves from attackers, and the number of bombs they chose to drop was a measure of aggression. When participants thought they were known to the experimenter and were having their performance assessed, men dropped more bombs than women did. But when those same participants were given the impression that they were anonymous, women became the more enthusiastic bombers.

Violent or not, women have as many angry thoughts as men, if not more. In a study carried out in 2004, Robin Simon, of Florida State University, and Leda Nath, of the University of Wisconsin, found no difference between the sexes in the reported frequency of incidents of feeling angry over a period of time. However, women tended to report anger that was more intense and prolonged.

But wait. There’s more:

A similar result on the greater intensity of female anger was reported earlier this year by Nicole Hess, of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, and Edward Hagen, of the same city’s Humboldt University. Dr Hess and Dr Hagen, however, took the matter one stage further by asking their participants what they wanted to do about it.

The researchers read the participants, who were undergraduate students, an “aggression-evoking scenario”. They were told they had just overheard a physically smaller classmate of the same sex making false and serious attacks on their reputation to a teacher. Once again, the women were angrier than the men. The real difference between the sexes, though, was in the way they proposed to retaliate. Women usually said that they would get their own back with gossip. Men were more evenly divided, with roughly half wanting to punch the slanderous classmate.

One idea to explain this is that in animals such as humans, where there is a lot of maternal care, females find physical aggression less affordable. And just because a smear is not physical does not mean that it is less damaging than a punch. Indeed, research suggests that girls find such indirect or social aggression much more hurtful than boys do.

Everyone is mean and aggressive! Cool! This is, indeed, the best of all possible worlds. The full article is here.