Beyond Ken and Barbie

Photo by Flickr user I Are Rowell. Click for sourceIf you’re wanting an antidote to all the Brizendine ‘male brain’ silliness which is floating round at the moment, Scientific American Mind has an excellent article by straight-thinking neuroscientist Lise Eliot that looks at the actual evidence for sex differences and how relatively minor differences at birth get shaped and amplified by how we guide children into certain preferences and behaviours.

Eliot has written Pink Brain, Blue Brain, probably the single best book I’ve ever found on the psychology and neuroscience of sex differences and gendered-behaviour.

It carefully and engagingly examines stereotypes in the light of evidence from both biological and social studies and the Scientific American Mind article tackles a similarly incisive tack:

So whereas men and boys score higher on measures of physical and verbal aggression, girls and women score higher on most measures of empathy, or the awareness and sharing of other people’s emotions, conclude psychologist Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University and her colleagues in studies dating back to the 1980s.

And yet the sex difference in empathy is smaller than most people realize and also strongly dependent on how it is measured. When men and women are asked to self-report their empathetic tendencies, women are much likelier than men to endorse statements such as “I am good at knowing how others will feel” or “I enjoy caring for other people.” When tested using more objective measures, however, such as recognizing the emotions in a series of photographed faces, the difference between men and women is much smaller, about four tenths of a standard deviation, meaning the average woman is more accurate than just 66 percent of men.

In children, the difference is tinier still, less than half that found in adults, reported psychologist Erin McClure of Emory University in 2000 after analyzing more than 100 studies of sex differences in facial emotion processing in infants, children and adolescents. So although girls do start out a bit more sensitive to other people’s faces and emotions, their advantage grows larger with age, no doubt because of their stronger communication skills, more practice at role playing with dolls and more intimate friendships as compared with boys.

Eliot effortlessly translates the broad scope of the scientific research into compelling prose and goes about questioning the ‘mars and venus’ stereotypes with an in-depth knowledge of the mind and brain.

If someone could send Brizendine a copy, I think we’d all be better off.

Link to SciAmMind article ‘The Truth about Boys and Girls’.
Link to more info on Eliot’s book Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Ken and Barbie”

  1. Males and females show little difference in breast size at birth. Later in development, this difference increases. Obviously, males and females “learn” puberty. Got that?
    Most physical and psychological traits have a developmental trajectory and will not be present at birth. The task is to find out how the hypothesized sex-differentiated traits express themselves ontogenetically.

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