White Paper: Men, Women, and Emotions
Saying that men and women handle their emotions differently is like saying rain is wet. Each of us has a story to tell of a time when we tried to understand the emotional reaction of someone of the opposite gender, or we tried to get the opposite gender to understand us. Sometimes we can be lighthearted and laugh about our failed efforts. Sometimes we just want to pull out our hair and scream.
The old question of nature vs. nurture comes into play, and both are culprits. Let’s start with nature.
• Men and women have different brains; and their brains process emotional events very differently. A recent Stanford University study showed that when women were shown increasingly emotional images, activity increased in nine areas of the brain known to play parts in emotion and memory. The men’s brains, when stimulated by the same images, showed higher activity in only two emotion/memory-related areas. Three weeks later, when these same volunteers were given a surprise memory test, the women significantly outperformed the men. The lack of emotion-to-memory connectivity within the brain could well explain why a woman might remember minute details of an emotional situation while a man involved in the same situation cannot recall even the larger details.
• The Stanford study and many others have scientifically proven that men have fewer connections between their left- and right-brain hemispheres. Why is this significant? Because the right hemisphere deals with emotion and the left hemisphere controls speech. The deficit of “bridges” between the left and right hemispheres in men could explain why they find it challenging to talk about their feelings. What women see as stubborn male stoicism may just be a physiological difference between males and females.
• A research study on children, using a recording of a crying baby, showed that the young boys were much quicker to try to turn off the recording than were the young girls. The initial thought was that this was “yet another example of male insensitivity,” but further research showed that the boys had much higher levels of stress hormones in their bloodstreams than the girls. Because males seem to be more sensitive to the fight or- flight hormone (cortisol), they learn to avoid situations that trigger the hormone’s release.
• Multiple studies show that women are more likely to cry than men, that they cry more frequently, and that they cry more intensely. In 2003, therapist and author Michael Gurian suggested a natural reason — beyond hormonal differences — for this: women’s tear glands are as much as 60 percent larger than men’s.
• Women secrete more serotonin and oxytocin than men. Serotonin is a calming hormone and oxytocin is a bonding hormone. Oxytocin also links the brain’s verbal centers and helps people under stress kick into a nurturing mode — rather than a fight or flight mode.
• Men secrete 20 times more testosterone than women, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our emotional and aggressive tendencies, is larger in men. Both of these things contribute to the male’s likelihood of being more aggressive than the female.
Enough about nature’s impact on us. What about nurture’s role?
• The stereotype that women — due to their affiliative natures — are happier and less angry than men was put under scrutiny by professors from the University of Quebec, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College. Doctors Hess, Adams, and Kleck showed study participants gender-neutral drawings of facial expressions depicting a variety of emotions. They the placed a “male” or “female” hair style on the same gender-neutral drawings and asked participants to rate the degree of emotion on a six-point scale. Researchers found that when the drawing was apparently male subjects rated him as less angry than when the same drawing was apparently female. When an apparent woman expressed happiness, she was rated as less joyful than the apparent male with the same facial expression.
• This study and the work of Purdue University psychologist Dr. Janice Kelly indicate that when men and women react differently than we expect them to act — based on widely accepted stereotypes of how they “should” act in emotional situations — we pay more attention. Because women are stereotyped as more emotional, we expect more emotional reactions from them and are less likely to react to their displays of emotion. Men’s emotional reactions are given more validity and are seen as more legitimate because they are stereotypically rarer.
• American society urges males to succeed and women to support. From early on, boys are bombarded with emotionally challenging “rules” — boys don’t cry … don’t be a quitter … be a leader, not a follower … always be number one … They are taught to reach for the sky at all costs, and their emotional reactions are stifled along the way.
• Girls, on the other hand, are taught to be polite, sharing, caring, and cooperative. And they are taught — through actions if not words — that their opinions don’t carry the same weight as the opinions of males. Even in today’s modern classrooms, in a profession dominated by women, teachers call on boys three times as frequently as they call on girls, and they excuse disruptive male behavior with a “boys will be boys” attitude.