From sense of direction to rationality, the subtle differences between men and women’s


Men and women really are wired differently, a fascinating study revealed this week.

Differences in brain activity that hadn’t yet been spotted by scientists was detected by artificial intelligence, revealing ‘hotspots’ that can be used to tell the sexes apart.

The findings suggest there are key differences in the ‘default mode network’, a brain system that helps us process the idea of ‘self’, and the striatum and limbic network, which are involved in learning and how people respond to rewards.

The researchers, from Stanford University, said the study helps resolve a long-term controversy over whether there are sex differences in the brain. 

However, previous studies had already pointed to differences in how men and women think, with women proving to have stronger memory and language skills, while men are found to be funnier and have better direction skills.

Additionally, it was already known that men’s brains were around a tenth bigger, clocking in at 1.37kg compared to women’s 1.27kg, on average.

However, researchers have long cautioned that this doesn’t align with intelligence, pointing to sperm whales, which have brains weighing nearly 8kg but are not known for being smart.

Previous studies have pointed to differences in how men and women think, with women proving to have stronger memory and language skills, while men are found to be funnier and have better direction skills. Additionally, it was already known that men's brains were around a tenth bigger, clocking in at 1.37kg compared to women's 1.27kg, on average, research suggests

Previous studies have pointed to differences in how men and women think, with women proving to have stronger memory and language skills, while men are found to be funnier and have better direction skills. Additionally, it was already known that men’s brains were around a tenth bigger, clocking in at 1.37kg compared to women’s 1.27kg, on average, research suggests

Humour

While still fewer than men, the number of female comedians doing stand-up and featuring on panel shows has skyrocketed in recent years, perhaps inspired by the likes of Katherine Ryan and Sara Pascoe.

But, incredibly controversially, researchers claim that men are typically funnier.

In 2019, psychologists at Aberystwyth University and the University of North Carolina reviewed around two dozen studies, each of which measured participants’ humour.

For example, in some, volunteers were shown cartoons and then asked to write a funny caption.

Judges then ranked the responses on funniness out of five. 

Results, published Journal of Research in Personality, showed that men were rated 63 per cent above the average humour ability of women, which the researchers said is a ‘small to medium difference’.

This does not mean that every man is funnier than every woman, they emphasised.  

The team suggested the finding could be a result of evolution, with women valuing men with a great sense of humour, as it is a sign of intelligence — crucial for survival when humans were primarily hunter-gatherers.

However, female comedians dismissed the study as ‘unnecessary’ and said the research could put women off going into comedy. 

Other studies have suggested that, rather than men actually being funnier, the idea that they are may just be a stereotype. 

Rationality

Despite women historically being labelled as less rational, it is, in fact, men who science suggests are less logical, as they are more likely to make extreme decisions.

Researchers in Australia looked at 97 studies involving more than 50,000 people.

All were offered a hypothetical sum of money and asked how much they wanted immediately and how much they would take later, with interest, as well as what sum they wanted to invest in a risky lottery and how much they would give to charity.

They were also asked how much they would give to another person, who would then triple the sum and have the option of returning the cash.

Men were more likely to make extreme choices than women, according to the results published in PNAS in 2021.

They were more likely to invest more money in the risky lottery, donate none of the money to charity and either share either none or more than 60 per cent of their cash with the person who could triple the sum.  

Study author Professor Stefan Volk, head of discipline international business at the University of Sydney Business School, said: ‘We found men were much more likely than women to be at the extreme ends of the behavioural spectrum.

‘[For example,] either acting very selfishly or very altruistically, very trusting or very distrusting, very fair or very unfair, very risky or very risk averse and were either very short-term or very long-term focused.’

He pointed to parental investment theory as an explanation, which suggests men are less selective of their partner choice and compete more for sexual partners.

Under this evolutionary idea, men may have had to ‘deviate from the average to stand out’ and attract women, while women could attract partners without varying from norms, Professor Volk said.

Directions

Navigating is a skill that’s generally best performed by men, or so the long-held sexist trope goes.

However, according to studies, there is some truth to claims that men slightly outperform women on spatial navigations tasks.

This includes one by a team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which was published last month.

To find out why, the researchers collected data on spatial navigation abilities and distance travelled from home among humans and 20 other species. 

If evolution was at play, the sex that travelled further from home would have better navigational skills, according to the researchers. 

Navigating is a skill that's generally best performed by men, or so the long-held sexist trope goes

Navigating is a skill that’s generally best performed by men, or so the long-held sexist trope goes

But the results, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, suggest that in all species, including humans, males were better at navigating than females, even though some females travelled further from home. 

This led the team to conclude that the finding is instead down to boys being encouraged to play outside more than girls, making them better at mapping their surroundings.

However, a separate study by University College London researchers suggested the gap in navigational skills between men and women is tiny in countries where there is high equality between men and women.

Memory

In the battle of the sexes, women have long argued that their memory is better.

And research suggests they’re right, with women outperforming men on all tests.

Scientists at the North American Menopause Society recruited 212 people aged 45 to 55 and assessed their episodic memory, the ability to recall everyday events, and executive function, which are the skills needed to plan, focus and remember tasks, as well as other markers of cognition.

Findings, shared in the journal Menopause in 2016, show that women scored better than men in every test.

However, the difference in scores reduced between men and women who had gone through the menopause.

The team put this down to ‘the change’ causing a drop in levels of the hormone oestradiol, which is thought to be important for connections in the memory centre of the brain.

However, a team at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that men are better at recalling images and remembering their way back from one location to another in a 2019 review.

Languages

Women are also, if you believe the research, more likely to know their ciao from their bonjour.

Fascinating studies have consistently shown women are better at picking up foreign languages than men.

Data from the British Council in 2020 revealed that girls are more than twice as likely than boys to achieve a pass in their GCSE language exams, with researchers warning that they ‘remain far behind on performance’. 

Data from the British Council in 2020 revealed that girls are more than twice as likely than boys to achieve a pass in their GCSE language exams, with researchers warning that they 'remain far behind on performance'

Data from the British Council in 2020 revealed that girls are more than twice as likely than boys to achieve a pass in their GCSE language exams, with researchers warning that they ‘remain far behind on performance’

However, researchers have suggested that this may be a cultural problem. 

A team at Dublin City University in 2020 said parents and teachers may be subtly putting boys off languages through statements such as ‘girls are good at language subjects’, which may be interpreted as ‘languages aren’t for boys’.

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that women and girls are naturally better at languages than boys or men, they said.

Other research has suggested the difference in performance is down to how boys learn and that they need to be taught a language through a textbook and in a classroom, while girls can pick it up using either of those methods.

Emotions 

When it comes to emotions, women have long been considered to be most expressive sex.

On the other hand, men have been typically painted as emotionally unaware of how others feel.

While these ideas are sweeping generalisations, studies suggest there is some truth in them. 

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 people aged eight to 22 and analysed their cortex, the area involved in thought, perception and language, and the cerebellum, which coordinates movement.

Results, published in the journal PNAS, suggested that the cortex was much more connected between the left and right sides of the brain in women.

This link up would encourage communication between parts of the organ involved in analytical and verbal tasks, according to the researchers.

This may, they claimed in 2013, make it easier for women to process emotions and understand other people’s intentions.

Meanwhile, men had more links between their cerebellum and the cortex on the opposite side of the brain, which may make it easier for men to coordinate movement.



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