Why Are Men and Women So Different?

How female and male brains can explain why we’re so different.

In my early years as a teacher somewhere between the first ice age and now I would present the same assignment every year. “Build your dream house,” I would exhort to my 6th graders. Obviously, they needed to build their houses on a small scale, but they could use any materials they wanted. I never gave them any instruction as to what to use or how they should do it, but to just use their imaginations. What came back was a complete surprise to me. Every girl—and I mean every girl—brought in a shoe box with a hole in it that I could look into and see the interior of their house. It would be laid out perfectly with small carpet samples, chairs and even a bedroom set.

The boys—and I mean all the boys—built their dream houses with these columns that would sort of wobble, with towers on top of that, and were usually painted with sparkly stuff. It was striking in the sense that the girls’ were very interior in their vision for their dream house and the boys’ were very exterior in their orientation.

I also found the girls to be good helpers, compliant, supportive, sensitive and generally more maternal than their male counterparts. The boy’s were always joking, running, figuring out puzzles, competing in sports and games while driving to succeed in the classroom (unless they had self esteem problems, and many of them did). Of course, what kind of culture, parental involvement and other factors played a role in each child’s degree of gender normative behavior, but the physical and psychological differences between the boys and the girls struck me as being very marked at that age.

While researching for this blog, I ran across an old episode of the successful series “Friends.” In this episode, the women talked about a first kiss between the characters played by Jennifer Anniston and David Schwimmer, in a much different way than the men. The women wanted to know about every detail of the interaction: where his hands were, what he said—in short, everything. Then the show cuts to the men, who were huddled around a table gorging on pizza when the Schwimmer character says that he kissed her and the other two guys say, “Cool.”  That was it. We laugh at this snippet of male and female differences because we know it’s all too true. Men generally don’t talk about serious or personal matters nearly as much as women do.

While men and women can value and engage in many of the same activities, they often have preferential differences. When I am working with couples, the men talk a lot about wanting a helpmate and activity partner, while women say they want to feel acknowledged and validated. Women talk about connection, being cherished, and security, and men talk about problem solving and achieving success. Women may feel closer and validated through communication, dialogue and intimate sharing of experience, emotional content and personal perspectives, while men often find such sharing and involvement uncomfortable, even overwhelming.

Why this difference?

Women have four times as many brain cells or neurons that connect the right and left hemisphere of their brains. This physical evidence supports the idea that men rely more heavily on their left brain to solve one problem, one step at a time, while women have more efficient access to both sides of their brain. Because of this difference, women have greater access to their right brain, which is associated with creative problem solving. Women have a more enhanced ability to multitask than their male counterparts.

 

Clearly, creative problem solving and multitasking are a desirable combination of assets. Women tend to be intuitive and can think globally. They will consider many sources of information simultaneously. They tend to take a broad perspective, and view elements in an assignment as interrelated and interdependent.

Men tend to focus acutely on one or a limited number of problems at a time. They have an enhanced ability to separate themselves from problems and can intellectually minimize the complexity, compared to the way that women incorporate personal experience into their problem solving. This tendency in men may make the dissonance or emotional association of ethical problems more manageable. The kind of logical thinking at which men excel is more linear, or sequential, and men with this style will view tasks as independent from one another.

So, with all these dissimilarities how in the world do relationships between men and women ever work at all?

Rather than seeing these differences as unavoidable sources of discord, we can view these differences as desirable. Because men and women have complementary skills, the balance between the two makes for healthy and productive partnership. We can view conflict as inevitable because of these essential differences, instead of as an indication of a fundamental flaw in our relationship. As men and women embrace these distinctions between one another, it allows each sex to learn the language of the other so that communication can thrive.

When men and women unite instead of compete they become a working partnership rather than living in separate worlds.

Vive la différence.

 

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Image of cute boy and girl courtesy of Shutterstock

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About Bill Cloke

Dr. Bill Cloke has worked with individuals and couples’ for 30 years. He received a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California and holds a Ph.D. in psychology from California Graduate Institute. A frequent talk-radio and tv psychologist, he is also a contributor to PsychologyToday.com, Care2.com and other popular websites and has lectured at UCLA. Bill Cloke lives with his wife in Los Angeles. Bill's book Happy Together has won the Nautilus and Benjamin Franklin Silver Awards for 2012. To learn more about Bill Cloke, and for more resources on creating healthy, happy relationships, visit his website.

Comments

  1. I don't know says:

    If we men don’t have much access to our right hemispheres, why aren’t they smaller, seeing as how they’re less used and presumably less useful?

  2. hurriednotes says:

    What about gay men, so many of whom exhibit capabilities, values, interests, methods, thinking, behaviors, etc that generally associated with females? Are they also supercharged like women? Or are they able to compensate for their male brain’s lack of connections? And if the latter, then do these connections then have little to do with women’s thinking and behavior? Curious to understand how to reconcile these perceptions.

  3. PrinceHal says:

    Yawn. You say many of the boys weren’t “always joking, running, figuring out puzzles, competing in sports and games while driving to succeed in the classroom”. How many? And why assume that non-stereotypical behaviour stems from low self-esteem rather than the other reverse?

    • Excellent point. A person who is willing to go against the accepted flow of things is typically a strong-minded or confident person.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    From what (admittedly little) I’ve read about the science of the brain, “multitasking” does not really exist, at least not the way most people think. You can’t really do several things simultaneously with your conscious mind. The closest you can get is moving from one activity to the next very, very quickly.

    Another basic principle of brain science today: the structure of the brain is in part an EFFECT of one’s behavior, not just the cause of behavior. Your brain is influenced by the environment. It is not simply an independent biological engine that just acts out of pre-programmed DNA and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Boys and girls act differently in at least some small part because they have been taught to act differently.

    I do appreciate the idea suggested here that different approaches have different advantages and disadvantages. The article seems to resist the temptation to say that girls are more mature and boys are more simple-minded. That’s refreshing, at least.

    I can imagine a feminist critique that would take this article to task for the association of “compliant” and “maternal”…. Ouch.

  5. Check out “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine, MD… It also has interesting studies and observations on this topic…

  6. Well this thread is going to be interesting!

  7. Quadruple A says:

    “(unless they had self esteem problems, and many of them did)”- So actually many of them defied the stereotype and yet you find a way of seeing that in terms of a defect ?

  8. I’ll just post some of what I learned. I don’t have my sources on me, so you don’t have to believe me.

    -The connection between the hemispheres of the brain is more complex than it’s often given credit for. By having a smaller corpus callosum (CC from here on), it reduces the bandwidth BETWEEN the hemispheres. Not the connection to only ONE hemisphere.

    Such effects of this are the fact that logic and emotion coexist, but don’t intertwine, and includes outward expression of inner feelings. BOTH sides are used, but they work more independently of each other.

    When raising young boys, the CC mass difference between genders is relatively small (still smaller in boys.) but the boys’ CC is more easily damaged, possibly because of the male-female transition that has to occur in boys. This was done in a blind test, where one of the groups displayed more physical impact from emotional distress, a group which they said “needed special attention during early development.” This ended up being the group of boys.

    Now look at how we traditionally raise boys. We tell them to toughen up while giving the girl kisses and band-aids. They say this blatant gender dichotomy of treatment manifests itself similar to neglect. “My sister is getting love and affection. What is hte matter with me?” He learns that people don’t respect him if they have to sympathize with him, and it teaches him distrust and less sympathy towards others.

    Now jump ahead in the boy’s timeline. It’s been shown in MRI tests and other brain scans that a man’s emotional centers light up notably more than women’s do for the same emotions. Possibly from bottling it up? Possibly from the brain compensating for a smaller CC? I don’t think that’s clear yet to them.

    -Multitasking? Yes, I believe women are more capable of “multitasking” in general. Multitasking in this sense quickly shifting focus to various tasks. You can’t REALLY multitask in the true sense, because the Prefrontal cortex only really works on one set of information at a time.

    But please remember to mention the Male equivalent. This stuff doesn’t just “disappear”.

    Men have quick and powerful single-tasking, involving focus-abundance. That is, sticking to one tasks for intense amounts of time. This also includes spacial self-perception. The brain has the natural ability to incorporate tools into your personal spacial awareness. It treats tools as part of the body after a while. For guys, thanks to powerful single-tasking, this change happens more quickly.

    -If you want another difference, look into how women think in abstract, algebraic terms, and men think in geometric, spacial terms.

  9. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    1. I find the issue of broad physiological differences pretty persuasive. I have no idea about the number of neurons in the corpus callosum, but Louann Brizendine M.D., explains many differences in her book, The Female Brain mainly in terms of hormonal differences, which can lead to differences in structure.
    2. I personally test as distinctly left-brained, but am hormonally quite male.

  10. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I meant right brained. Damned right-brainedness. The differences between male and female are so striking and similar from culture to culture that it’s an elephant in the room type of obviousness. Like Cloke, I have a PhD, as a testemonial that right-brainedness can be overcome.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Problem with neurological differences is that it takes away the oomph behind condemning one or another facet of our culture, obsolete patriarchal role models. Guilt-tripping doesn’t work on neural connections.
    ‘nother problem is that ordinary people have been, most of us, boys or girls, and they have their lying eyes to remember. And we know teachers. Got a relation who’s a long-time kindergarten-first teacher. Never fails that it’s tougher to manage girls getting along than boys. Any class with more than half girls is going to be a problem, as will their mothers.
    And the younger this stuff is manifest, the tougher it is to make the case that it’s culturally-induced.
    And then there’s the sad, sad story of Xander Vento.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Slightly different take: No research creds are necessary to fulminate about role models, straitjacketing expectations, patriarchal oppression, et tedious cetera. Hate to find that field turned irrelevant.

  13. I’d like to make a few points here. First, I appreciate a spirited discussion about issues of interest in understanding what it means to be a Good Man. Second, I don’t appreciate put downs or name calling, regardless of how much we agree with the author (Nathan). Third, whenever we talk about male/female differences there are bound to be strong feelings on both sides.

    I’m not an expert on brain science. My Ph.D. is in international health and I have been working to help men, and the women who love them, for more than 40 years.

    On the whole, Bill’s ideas that there are significant differences between males and females and that these differences are influenced by different brain structure and function is supported by the current brain science as I understand it. I found the most interesting thing Bill said was about the different ways his male students built their houses compared to the way the female students built theirs. And as Nathan says, things are more complicated than more connections between the left and right hemispheres in women’s brains.

    I wouldn’t relay on my findings on brain science from Wikipedia or other popular sites, but check out some of the experts. Louann Brizendine, M.D. is a neuro-psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, was previously on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is a graduate of Yale University School of Medicine and U.C. Berkeley in neurobiology. Doesn’t mean everything she says is gospel, but she has put in the time and study to be taken seriously. Her books, The Female Brain (www.thefemalebrain.com) and The Male Brain (www.LouannBrizendine.com). In The Female Brain (p.4) she says, “Scientists have documented an astonishing array of structural, chemical, genetic, hormonal, and functional brain differences between women and men.”

    I’d also recommend, The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male & Female Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen. http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/books. Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University and has been doing original research on male-female brain differences for years. If you don’t want to read the whole book, he gives is conclusions in the first sentence (unusual for academics to lay their cards on the table at the beginning of the game. “I could tiptoe around, but my guess is that you would like the theory of the book stated plainly. So here it is:

    “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Pretty direct and simple. Ah, but there’s more to the story. We find out that most men have the male type brain and most females have the female type brain, but not all of us. Turns out I have a female-type brain (may be why I’m so wordy, who knows.)

    • Love your excellent comment and observation. As a female, I’m impressed with your “wordy” brain.

    • Agreed, Jed, that this is the kind of topic on which people are bound to have strong opinions. One commenter whose contributions I have deleted was calling names and being insulting. Feel free to post facts and arguments counter to those that Bill has made here in his article, but keep it to the discussion, folks, not attacking individuals’ intelligence, credentials, or trustworthiness.

    • Interesting to the article is the difference in house design between boys and girls. Although I think grade 6 is pretty far along the way in cultural development. So it doesn’t seem surprising that such expressions would be resident by that age.

      I used to design kitchens and found that men tend to organize or decorate in linear lines, sort of on the perimeter of the existing space. Women however tend to be non-linear and organize a number of smaller grouping within the existing space.My interpretation would be that men create open spaces and women create closed spaces.

      What I find interesting is that references to research all seem to relate to post developmental brains. Brains that have been subject to and developed within the culture.
      Grown up brains, habitual acculturated brains.

      I particularly enjoy the work done by John Medina and his website Brain Rules.John is a developmental molecular biologist, who openly states that the notion that “Men are from ? and Women are from ?” is patently false. But I think that allot hangs on the word “development”.

      I do get a little bothered by statements such as this:

      “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

      Mostly because “empathy” and “understanding” are synonyms of similiar meaning and are interchangeable. They don’t delineate any difference. Which leads me to suspect that our science is not much more than a habitual expression to support a culture of beliefs.

      Both words empathy and understanding relate to comprehension and I fail to see why empathy is so often described as some warm and fuzzy style of comprehension. I tend to believe that both men and women experience empathy as a cognitive comprehension but would delineate the difference in how it is experienced. I think men experience empathy subjectively and women experience it objectively.

      The fact of the matter is if you apply comprehension to language you are engaging your empathy. IMO

      • Empathy means to feel with. I agree that my male buddies often understand what I’m enduring, but tend to stay away from empathy so as not to cloud the issue
        I will often get empathy from a female, bit not understanding
        And the reverse from the guys

    • “We find out that most men have the male type brain and most females have the female type brain, but not all of us. Turns out I have a female-type brain (may be why I’m so wordy, who knows.)”

      According to Baron-Cohen, I have a 75% male brain.

      I’m a trans woman. And besides my obsessive-level interests for certain things, my brain passes for female in that I’m wordy, incredibly wordy. Aspie-level wordy. I don’t care about interior design, even function can go out the window. I want efficiency for whatever I plan on doing. It being a nice texture, color etc is only a small unnoticeable bonus.

  14. ChundaMars says:

    For an argument on the other side read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, which I just recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed. The science behind gender differences in the brain seems to be far from conclusive and much can be explained by social factors.

  15. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I wanted to like Cordelia Fine much more than I did. I think the book is basically procrustian– in other words it seeks to find research that leads to its conclusions. I’ll grant that many societies exaggerate biological differences for reasons of militarism, or to foster aggressive and unethical business practices (like ours.) I think some basis for Fine’s conclusions may be there in that some women in business act as unethically as some men do. (It’s not that societies “intend” anything, it’s just that the behavior becomes “functional” and gets perpetuated.)

    • Would you argue that The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine (which you praise above) is not procrustean?

      • Soda, I had to look up “procrustean” : : 1 of, relating to, or typical of Procrustes
        2 marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances.

        Not sure exactly what you’re asking. I found The Female Brain a helpful book, though her follow up book on The Male Brain gave more of the scientific foundation of her findings.

        • Not sure if this is going to be a double post or not, already sent it but don’t see it.

          Hank gave his definiton of procrustian above – he was arguing that Fine selected research that fit an argument she’d already settled on in writing Delusions of Gender. Having read Brizendine’s The Female Brain and skimmed The Male Brain, I think it’s clear that both of these authors wrote their books having already settled on a particular argument.

          I prefferred Fine’s book overall though. She uses in-text references, which make it much easier for us to examine the evidence her claims are based on. Additionally, Fine enourages us to think critically about scientific claims we hear in the media, whereas Brizendine seems to simply expect us to accept her word as gospel on the subject of male and female brains. Not very scientific – a scientific approach has to include both evidence and critical thinking.

          • Hank Vandenburgh says:

            I think Fine has less of a burden, since she’s dealing with harder variables (like hormones, aspects of physiology, etc.) I’m a sociologist, and I hate admitting it, but the research behind much of advocacy social science is “iffyer.” Over the years, because of this, I’ve been drawn more and more toward biologically-based points of view. This needen’t push us toward an illiberal or unjust view of society, though. I absolutely believe in salary parity, and both sex’s access to any and all jobs.

          • ChundaMars says:

            I agree, hence why I mentioned it here. I also enjoyed Fine’s book because, rather than proclaiming anything with certainty, it actually points out that the science is inconclusive, and often completely misrepresented, and therefore it is other authors who DO proclaim their certainty in “inherent differences” that we should be wary of.

            It also seems clear to me that the general public WANT to be told that differences between men and women are inherent and unchangeable, then they can carry on with set gender roles without ever needing to question things – hence the popularity of books that are happy to claim certainty in this area. Fine’s book, then, is swimming upstream.

            One small example from Delusions of Gender: a study (I don’t have the book in front of me so can’t reference specifically sorry) that was reported to have found that infants prefer female faces to male faces. As you can imagine, this supports the view most people have that women should care for the children, and men not, because the babies themselves prefer it. However, when the study was done only on infants who have a male as primary caregiver, those babies were found to prefer male faces to female faces. So the conclusions are completely about-face in the first case: women shouldn’t stay at home to look after children because babies prefer it – babies prefer it because women are predominantly the ones who stay at home!

            Anyway, enough from me. Read the book – it’s an eye-opener.

            • ChundaMars says:

              To clarify – my comment above is in reply to Soda, not Hank. We must have been typing at the same time :-)

            • One of my favourite bits was the study on empathic skills, where the participants had to try and assess other people’s feelings based on facial expressions and so forth. Women scored much higher on these tests – i.e. demonstrated a much higher empathic ability – until the men were offered $1 for every answer they got right. Then the scores suddenly became very even.

              Conclusion: Empathic skills are a human attribute which men are not culturally encouraged to use. It doesn’t mean we don’t have them.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    “I think Fine has less of a burden, since she’s dealing with harder variables (like hormones, aspects of physiology, etc.) I’m a sociologist, and I hate admitting it, but the research behind much of advocacy social science is “iffyer.” Over the years, because of this, I’ve been drawn more and more toward biologically-based points of view. This needen’t push us toward an illiberal or unjust view of society, though. I absolutely believe in salary parity, and both sex’s access to any and all jobs.”

    Hank. Your belief in salary parity–presumably for exactly identical jobs–and access are pretty mainstream. Problem is your begining belief in innate differences–hormones, etc.–and the obvious–physical strength. Eventually, a “just” society’s conclusion about “just” is going to run into the innate difference. Then what?
    At this point, so far, we have gender-normed physical requirements because the innate differences resulted in disparate impact, despite equal access defined as anybody can apply for the job in question. The access is differentiated later on, when the proof of job qualification had to be rejiggered.

  17. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Gosh, I meant Brizendine has less of a problem. Fuzzy today.

    • Hank Vandenburgh says:

      Or “burden.” My hunch is that best anyone can do would be something like Sweden, where mothers get income/protection. I think attempts to rid culture of “gender” completely are fairly perverse and are likely to be grotesque.

      • Attempts to “fence” gender with restrictions (ie restrictions on men’s clothing), stigma (on doing certain activities) and rewarding sheep behavior (conformism for everyone forever!) – is no better.

        What’s female or feminine about raising kids? It’s a human thing.

        What’s female or feminine about skirts, about arts, about figure skating, about ballet, about gymnastics?

        What’s male or masculine about beer, about fast cars, about pick up trucks, or about dressing as bland as possible forever for no reason than it being THE (only) standard (might as well be a uniform)?

  18. I strongly suspect that the fact young boys (<12 mnths) receive significantly less physical affection than young girls (<12 mnths) does do have a real impact on the gender difference we see. This takes place way before the child is exposed to media and I think it's more important than the child emulating behavior seen in adults.
    Mother's also talk more to baby girls than to baby boys. Significantly more baby girls were breast fed than baby boys. ( http://books.google.no/books?id=ZuAOAAAAQAAJ&lpg=PP1&hl=no&pg=PA1249#v=onepage&q&f=false )

    • Indeed, and yet this article talks about children entering their school years (so we’re talking 4/5 years old) as if they were ‘blank slates’ and as if they had recieved no previous gender socialisation.

  19. Not to refute the ideas expressed in this article at all, but, isn’t a lot of male/female psych and differences influenced by how our cultural society conditions each gender?
    Before babies are even born as soon as the sex is identified, they are gender typed. Girl pink boy blue. Dolls are for girls, trucks are for boys. Mix that up and your children are gay mentality…
    People draw on their social surroundings. so if a male child is rewarded for manly behavior and chastised for being a wimp, his brain makes that connection and he learns and is shaped by that. linking pain and pleasure.
    Not entirely, but doesnt that contribute largely?

  20. How do you know all of these differences are directly related to brain anatomy? I think allot of it is down to upbringing and society. For example, Men who are overly emotional are normally treated differently (they’re “Not cool” “gay” etc) and because of this men tend to suppress these aspects of there personality to be accepted by there peers… I think I’d feel very uncomfortable if a man was upset and started hugging me and crying on my shoulder… your reaction would be something like “Don’t be a baby” or “Grow up” (you’re giving negative feedback to this behaviour… which like a dog, teaches men to avoid this behaviour). We’re all insecure and so we suppress and change our emotional thinking patterns… maybe this is why women have more connections connecting the left and right sides of there brain, because they have been “taught” by there peers to use these path ways more often which has further developed these parts of there brains.

    Hope you find my ideas interesting :D

  21. I have enjoyed reading this discussion. My input is simply this: I am a 53 year old woman married to a 53 year old man for 25 years. I know for a fact that my husband tends to focus strongly on one thing at a time while I tend to focus on several things at once. For example: When we clean house together, I have a timed plan for the day to get all of the chores done simultaneously while my husband can easily get frustrated if I try and force him to think about more than one chore at a time. Inevitably, I tend to get a lot more done in a much shorter time frame, however, I truly believe that environment has a lot to do with how a person thinks along with how you were raised. In 25 years, my husband has come a long way as far as learning and is so much more efficient at chores around the house simply because I have taught him. I love him for trying as I do believe it does go against all of his natural inclinations. The longer we are together it is obvious that we are complete opposites in how we view day to day life.

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