Are Men or Women More Cooperative?

Men edge out women in single-sex interactions, but women win in mixed-sex situations.

Men edge out women in single-sex interactions, but women win in mixed-sex situations.

My guess before I read a new paper by Balliet et al. (2011) was that there’s no difference between men and women or maybe a slight advantage for women. But according to the latest thinking that’s not quite right.

The debate over whether men or women cooperate more has been going on for years. The research finds that men are more likely to help a stranger and are better at cooperating in larger groups, while women are often kinder, more agreeable and more supportive.

Still, the differences between the sexes are often grossly exaggerated (see: Men and Women are Psychologically Very Similar); men and women definitely don’t come from different planets.

So what Balliet et al. (2011) did was look across 50 years of research and hundreds of different studies to see what emerged. They broke studies down by situations and they found that overall, when you averaged everything out, there was little difference between men and women.

As ever, though, the devil is in the details, and they teased out some somewhat counter-intuitive findings:

  • In single sex interactions men are more cooperative than women. The difference is quite small but emerges consistently when men are working with other men and women with other women.
  • In mixed sex interactions, though, women cooperate more than men. Again, the difference is quite small but it’s there, in study after study.
  • When working together over time men are generally more cooperative than women. Once again the difference is quite small.

What’s going on here? There are a couple of theories:

  • When men and women are in mixed sex groups they tend to act in more stereotypical ways because of the presence of the opposite sex.
  • An evolutionary perspective would suggest that men are showing off to women how dominant they are in mixed sex groups, so this reduces their cooperation.

Whatever the reason, these findings fit in with much other research. Generally the differences between men and women’s social behaviour are quite small. If you want to know how much a person is going to cooperate with you forget about their gender and focus instead on their personality.

Image credit: Kerry Jardine

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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