Monday, October 29, 2007

The Differences Between Boys and Girls

Remember that one Jack Nicholson movie, "As Good As It Gets"? Nicholson plays an unpleasant yet very successful writer of romance novels, Melvin Udall. At one point in the movie, a receptionist asks him, "How do you write women so well?" He answers, "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."

I thought of that quote sitting in my Psychology of Emotion lecture today. (Background: I attend the University of California, Berkeley. This particular class is taught by the head of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, and relatively well-known emotion researcher - he has a Wikipedia page! - Dacher Keltner.)

As Keltner points out, in U.S. culture (and, in fact, most cultures) we have "clear, robust stereotypes about the emotion profiles of men and women." We think women work one way, and men another. Hence the receptionist's question to Melvin Udall. What ARE the differences between men and women?

Popular wisdom (in this case, popular wisdom gathered through scientific survey) has it that women express and experience all emotions more than men, except for anger, pride, and contempt (the antisocial/distancing emotions). In studies, women always report more intense experiences of (and feeling more) emotions, except for desire and lust, which men vastly report higher. In studies of embarrassment that my professor himself did, women reported being embarrassed at a far higher rate than men.

What does Science say about this?

Well, studies show no differences in the biological processes of emotion gender by gender. Men and women experience the same emotions in the same ways at the same level. However, big differences are seen in the labeling and expression of emotions. In other words, there aren't any physical differences in how men and women experience emotions - but we all really, really, believe there are.

(Here I should point out that there are ways to physically measure any basic emotion. They all have their own distinct physiological profiles. So yes, if any of you take a scientific study, feel an emotion, and lie about it - the researchers will know.)

Back to the embarrassment studies - when men displayed physiological signs of embarrassment, they would typically claim they felt amusement. There weren't any differences in behavior. However, there are differences in expression of emotions in other areas gender to gender; as one might expect, women tend to express emotions more. Women tend to smile and laugh more, and women are ten times - ten times! - more likely to actually cry in studies. Men, however, will do almost anything to fight crying, even though their bodies and brains are telling them to. (In other words, the physiological changes are there, but being actively suppressed on the surface, which isn't the only thing being measured in these studies.)

Women are also better at reading emotions than men - but barely. On a 100 point scale, women test at 78, men at 76. (Guesses in the classroom ranged from the 20s to 50s for men.)

Whose fault is this?

Studies point to parents. One fascinating experiment involved young parents being shown videos of an infant experiencing a startle reaction. If the parents are told that the infant is a boy, they claim that the "boy" is angry. Other parents, shown the same video, are told that the infant is a girl. They claim that the "girl" is afraid. (Note: The correct emotion, which is 'surprise', is determined by the researchers through position of facial muscles. "Anger" and "fear" are both incorrect, having different facial expression profiles.)

Studies show consistently that mothers talk far more with young girls about emotion than young boys. With young boys, mothers emphasize anger and physical activity. Analyses of U.S. parenting manuals show that they overall suggest that boys should be naturally "wild", while girls should be "more articulate and reasonable about emotions". All this may explain why, in the area of emotion disorder by gender, women are twice as likely to experience major episodes of depression, while men, with their stunted emotion vocabularies, are five times more likely to show antisocial behavior like violence, rage, acting out (and, incidentally, suffer from alcoholism).

So men and women feel the same, but act differently. Kinda differently.

What's up with that? And what does it mean for writing gendered characters? I'm pretty sure if you analyze most men and women in fiction, they'll kinda live by stereotypes that they're expected to. It's not exactly a secret that many writers stick firmly to stereotypes for characters of a different gender than themselves, for fear of 'getting it wrong'. But what about writers writing a character of their gender, and assuming they're 'getting it right' when they in fact, may not be? And what is getting it right? On one level, perception does create reality. So writing by gender stereotypes may have something to it, on some level...

How do you "write women"? How do you "write men"?

Something to think about.


David Isaak said...

An interesting post, but I have to say that you seem to be leaving testosterone out of the equation, and you shouldn't. Societal and parental conditioning only goes so far towards explaining behavior.

There's actually a lot of science on the nature/nurture debate nowadays, and things like separated twin studies try and rate all manner of traits and behaviors relative to these two possibilities, and though precise results vary between parameters (and between studies), they susally end up scoring most tings at around 50-50.

My grandfather had a ranch, so I had opportunity to see what happened to animals after they were gelded. I'm not sure whether a horse's emotions changed due to having thier testicles removed, but the horse's likelihood of kicking you went way way down when testosterone was eliminated from the equation.

Jake Jesson said...

The point I gathered from all these research results is that these hormonal/physiological differences, while they DO exist, do not seem to affect emotions. Emotions, being distinct from moods and temperament - and behavior patterns (although of course emotions are part of behavior patterns).

Research on hormones is terrifyingly sparse; and of course emotion research is woefully incomplete. This maybe should've been obvious to me, but I've continually been startled in my psych classes when my Big Name professors come right out and admit, "I don't know the answer to that; there hasn't been any research done on it." Not "not enough" data; not "any" data. How my illusions are shattered! (There are, however, lots of data on emotions, thanks to obsessive anthropologists and intercultural politics kicking things off. It's contradictory data in many ways, but apparently not in the area of gender differences.)

Very little data on testosterone, too, except that it's a masculinizer. There are arguments that inclination towards aggression can up the body's testosterone production; not sure how much I buy that, but I do know that testosterone levels are NOT the most useful predictors of aggression in human - it's actually, IIRC, obesity and cholesterol levels (!!!).

Anyone who thinks we really understand how humans work needs a wake-up call, unfortunately.