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Are men and women psychologically different? Does it matter?

Introduction

Society tends to easily box men and women into different categories, with many arguing that women are simply inferior to men physically and mentally. Research has shown small but significant differences in emotional expression between genders in the expression of emotion in Western countries. These differences are not all due to pure logical and scientific differences, but also years of societal influence and pre-existing notions and biases.


The Neuroscience of Emotion

The first theory of our psychological differences is biological. Early gender differences, such as in infancy and young adulthood, seem to be strongly influenced by biological factors, especially regarding the influence of sex hormones like testosterone in utero, which lead to brain and body differences between boys and girls (Zahn-Waxler et al., 2008).

Else-Quest et al. (2006) also found that girls expressed internalising emotions such as fear at a significantly larger rate than boys. and the behaviour did not change with age. This suggests that internalising emotions are not as affected by socialisation, but are, in fact, biologically based.

There have also been several neurological gender differences present in various species and with humans, with women on average displaying greater verbal ability, while men on average displaying better spatial ability. (Hyde, 2016).

In addition, there are neurological differences in gender which are shown in both the vulnerability as well as symptoms and conditions of various neurological diseases that involve cognitive disruption like Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and schizophrenia. Women are more likely to have AD, and men are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia (Snyder et al., 2016), and the symptoms and disturbances that come from these diseases also have gender differences, with women showing more severe symptoms and a larger decline in memory with AD (Irvine et al., 2012), whereas men show more severe cognitive symptoms with schizophrenia. (Mendrek and Mancini-Marie, 2016).


Socialisation

However, many other psychologists believe that environmental factors and socialisation are the main factors for the psychological differences between men and women.

The Gender Schema Theory is a theory that proposes such, suggesting that boys and girls develop schemas (patterns of behaviour or thinking) for gender, such as what traits are associated with each gender, based on observing their environments (Martin & Halverson, 1981). Thus, children proceed to adjust their behaviours to fit with their own sex schemas, which further reinforce those schemas. For example, boys choose not to play with dolls and feminine figurines, believing those are “girly” activities and instead choose to participate in rougher activities. Whereas female friend groups are often associated with more cooperative activities. (Rose & Rudolph, 2006)

In the US and in many Western cultures, girls are expected to display greater levels of most positive emotions, as well as tender emotions, such as empathy and sympathy; but are also expected to internalise negative emotions (Brody & Hall, 2008). These rules for displaying emotions in females are consistent with the societal stereotypes that exist, posing that females should be kinder, more nurturing, and more accommodating than males (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1991).

On the other hand, boys tend to show less internalising, tender emotions, yet express externalising emotions including anger, contempt, and disgust. These externalising emotions promote the goal of overcoming obstacles, which are consistent with traditional societal gender roles for males to be independent, and aggressive, in order to protect their families. (Brody, 1999). Consistent with this idea, in a sample of US youth, Buck (1977) found that boys’ externalised emotional expressions decreased with age from age 4 to 6 years, yet there were no changes in girls’ expressions.

However, men have actually shown equal or greater levels of physiological arousal, for example, men show greater blood pressure and cortisol responses to emotionally arousing stressors (Chaplin, Hong, Bergquist, & Sinha, 2008), suggesting that men are equally aroused internally, and experience the same emotions, but are simply conditioned by society to not externally show their emotions.

These observations were more clearly linked to socialisation when Chaplin and Aldao (2013) found that boys and girls did not externalise emotional expressions in infancy with much difference, but the gender differences increased with age. However, there was an unexpected finding, in which boys actually showed less externalising emotional expressions than girls in adolescence. This may be due to increases in depression and puberty-induced annoyance in adolescence for girls or may be due to changing gender roles for teenage girls’ expressions of anger in recent years (Brown, 1999), with anger becoming more acceptable for teenage girls.


The Contrast between Eastern and Western Gender Equality

This is more clearly shown when contrasting the Western and Eastern gender differences.

Wiebke Bleidorn, PhD, of the University of California, Davis and her colleagues found that in developed nations- since they promoted independence and individualism- there were larger gender gaps in self-esteem than poorer, developing nations with perceived greater gender inequality, likely due to specific cultural influences that guide self-esteem development in men and women. For example, in East Asia, the gender gap was smaller compared to North America, but it was larger in many South and Central American samples.


Conclusion

Essentially, this demonstrates that men and women are, in fact, psychologically different, and it is an undeniable fact. However, a large reason for these differences is not because of the biological differences between the genders, but the socialisation of the genders from a young age. Ultimately, gender gaps still exist, and should not be ignored; the lack of women in STEM has been a profound issue that has not been able to be addressed, resulting in a waste of badly needed human capital, and the greater presentation of depression and other mental health issues like eating disorders in women can be a waste of human life. Therefore, I champion we stop viewing gender and psychology as a binary- our brain is flexible and malleable, shaped by our experiences and genetics, not simply shaped by gender- and challenge confining stereotypes and expectations.


Sources

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Else-Quest NM, Hyde JS, Goldsmith HH, van Hulle CA. Gender differences in temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 2006; 132:33–72. doi:10.1037/0033–2909.132.1.33.

Hyde JS. Sex and cognition: gender and cognitive functions. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2016; 38:53–56.

Voyer D, Voyer SD, Saint-Aubin J. Sex differences in visual-spatial working memory: a meta-analysis. Psychon Bull Rev. 2016

Snyder HM, Asthana S, Bain L, Brinton R, Craft S, Dubal DB, Espeland MA, Gatz M, Mielke MM, Raber J, Rapp PR, Yaffe K, Carrillo MC. Sex biology contributions to vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease: a think tank convened by the Women’s Alzheimer’s Research Initiative. Alzheimer’s Dement. 2016; 12:1186–1196.

Irvine K, Laws KR, Gale TM, Kondel TK. Greater cognitive deterioration in women than men with Alzheimer’s disease: a meta-analysis. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2012;34(9):989–998.

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Rose AJ, Rudolph KD. A review of sex differences in peer relationship processes: Potential trade-offs for the emotional and behavioural development of girls and boys. Psychological Bulletin. 2006;132(1):98–131.

Brody LR, Hall JA. Gender and emotion in context. In: Lewis M, Haviland-Jones JM, Barrett LF, editors. Handbook of emotions. 3rd The Guilford Press; New York, NY: 2008. pp. 395–408.

Zahn-Waxler C, Cole PM, Barrett KC. Guilt and empathy: Sex differences and implications for the development of depression. In: Garber J, Dodge KA, editors. The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK: 1991. pp. 243–272.

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Chaplin TM, Hong KA, Bergquist K, Sinha R. Gender differences in response to emotional stress: An assessment across subjective, behavioural, and physiological domains and relations to alcohol craving. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2008; 32:1242–1250.

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