The first programme in the BBC series ‘Secrets of Sexes‘ looked at the idea of brain sex. It has come in for some criticism from Mind Hacks for simplifying a complicated area of psychology and for the using the idea of ‘brain sex’.
Any TV programme on a specialist subject like this is forced to simplify because too much heavy detail turns off viewers. This programme, however, generally did a good job of introducing some fascinating research and ideas about psychological sex differences.
On average, women have stronger verbal abilities. But what exactly does ‘verbal ability’ mean? Some of the tests that have been used are word fluency, use of grammar, spelling, reading, ability to understand, extend of vocabulary. In all of these areas women show an advantage over men. The only verbal area in which men sometimes show a small advantage is in the generation of analogies. It’s possible to argue that these tests don’t accurately represent ‘verbal ability’, but that’s nitpicking.
The differences between men and women in mathematical ability are actually fairly small. Men show a slight advantage in geometry, probability and statistics. On the other hand, women are slightly better at arithmetical calculations. Where there is a big gap is at the extremes of ability. Of the most able mathematicians (top 6%), there are 13 males for every female.
Men’s main advantage is in visuo-spatial abilities – although they only show a major advantage in one particular area: mental rotation tasks (you can see an example here). Men also show some advantage over women in other visuo-spatial tests such as judging the orientation of a line and visualising objects spatially, although these differences are not great. Men are also able to tell left from right under pressure more accurately than women.
There are some other less well-known physiological areas in which men and women differ. For example women’s sense of smell is much stronger than men, as is their sense of touch.
A number of caveats need to be applied to all this research. The most important is that on most of these tests there is a considerable overlap between the performance of men and women. In other words the differences are not that huge – it is best to think of an overlapping continuum for both men and women on which the average is slightly different for some abilities. Men and women have more similarities than differences.
There are two more programmes in this series and I would recommend you tune in.
[Big thanks to Ernie Govier for a gripping lecture (I’m not joking) on psychological sex differences – of which this post is a summary.]
Published: 21 July 2005