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Gender Differences in Cognition and Conflict
by Jason Jem

Are men and women two species, separated by a common language?
[apology to G.B. Shaw]

Countless numbers of books, magazines, entertainment shows and common “wisdom” create a cultural abyss between the sexes. Are these differences real or exaggerated by the popular press and the entertainment industry? For example, are women more empathic, social and communicative, while men are emotionally handicapped, less social and less talkative? Is this caused by nature or nurture? Are these differences real or myths? If there are differences, what are they? What are the innate, biological or natural differences? What differences arise from our environment, culture or nurturing? Do these differences create conflict? If so, what are these conflicts? Understanding these differences and their origins can reduce the communication and emotional conflicts between men and women. Findings from empirical research leads us to use better techniques to first understand ourselves, then understand our spouses better, which then leads to reducing conflict, increasing harmony and living better lives.

Common perceptions about great gender differences in communication and psychology are not true. Surprisingly, empirical social science and psychological research show there are many more similarities than differences between men and women’s cognition and communication.

Recognizing the slight communication differences between men and women, might only require a little extra effort, but most importantly would lead to much better understanding and relationships.

Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) were two psychology researchers who wrote one of the first very detailed books on cognitive gender differences. They evaluated scores of research papers and reported that there are almost no cognitive gender differences, with a few exceptions. Tannen (1991) analyzed newer research and reached similar conclusions about few cognitive gender differences. However, with her linguistics training, she explains a few important language and related cognitive differences between men and women. Gray’s (1992) very popular “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” helped many couples understand each other better, but over simplified the differences and solutions. Knox and colleagues (2004) describe their research that shows a very unfortunate result of miscommunication between men and women. Shepard’s (1971) mental rotation tests, which showed significant gender differences, was expanded by Kimura (1997) to include hormonal influences. More recently researchers such as Davatzikos, et al. (1998) Luders, et al. (2006) used fMRI to isolate regions of the brain that show physical differences between men and women, which might explain some of the few cognitive differences. Brizendine (2006) unifies biological, social and evolutionary principles to emphasize innate gender differences in cognition.

This paper will begin with an overview of the stereotypes of male and female communication and the associated conflicts. Next a review empirical research that shows that these differences are not true. The few actual differences will be listed and analyzed for their social versus biological roots. Finally, based on an understanding of the causes of these few differences, information will be presented to help men and women understand each other better and reduce conflicts.

Societal origins of gender roles, cognition and stereotypes

Entertainers and especially comedians often satirize and exaggerate communication and psychological differences between men and women and their resulting conflicts. Albert Bandura’s observational learning theory (1997) explains how the entertainment industry unintentionally affects people, because observational learning “occurs when individuals acquire new forms of behavior or thought, simply by observing the actions of others” (Baron, et al. 2006, pg. 130). Therefore, the seemingly harmless entertainment industry ends up perpetuating many stereotypes of gender differences and can add fuel to conflicts. Additionally, stereotype threat (Steele, 1997, as cited in Omrod, 2008) creates a self-fulfilling vicious cycle of art imitating life, then life imitates art’s false premises of problems between men and women.

A satirical example of exaggerated gender differences is comedian Rob Becker’s stage show “Defending the Caveman.” He cites “research” which totaled women’s 10,000 words per day versus men’s 6,000. Becker complains, “When I come home, I’ve used up all of my quota, but my wife has 4,000 more to go!” He may have obtained that data from Brizendine (2006) who states, “girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys” (pg. 36).

Doubting that statistic, Leaper and Ayres (2007) linguistically analyzed not just the number, but also the type of words that men and women use. Their research show a linguistic difference compared to basic numerical difference reported by Brizendine and her sources: Men use more assertive words, but mainly assertive words, which are more judgmental and experiential. They interrupt women more often – to interject an opinion, and use fillers (uh, well, ahh) to hold his place in the conversation and thwart interruptions. Women also interrupt each other often, but to acknowledge the speaker and add relationally supportive comments. Women’s use more affiliative words with social and emotional content. Additionally, Brownlow and colleagues’ (2003) research also showed when women use language that is equally as assertive as men, these women are judged as ineffective or overly harsh leaders.

However we should not forget that many of these media serve as entertainment conduits, which emphasize and exploit gender differences. After all, we should remember one’s “framing” of a perceived problem is influenced by what social psychologists term one’s “affect” or our current emotional and relational condition. In other words, common sense explains that couples who have a good relationship, without too much conflict, do not need nor are attracted to news media stories that emphasize gender differences. News organizations would naturally report about stormy weather, and take a sunny day for granted. Similarly for male and female relationships, people notice differences and stormy conflicts. Fortunate couples with good relationships do not attract attention and obviously do not need any help. That is why comedians, self-help authors and our society take notice, inflate and profit on gender differences and conflicts. Of course this is not to say the advice they give is not important; resolving conflict is vital and valuable for couples who do have serious problems.

Even though these social and media stereotypes of irreconcilable differences in male and female communication are widespread, empirical psychology and social science research show that while there are some statistically significant differences, the overall variation within each gender far exceeds the slight differences between men and women (see appendix Fig. 1a and 1b). In other words, within men, there are many who are garrulous, versus men who are very quiet; whereas in women there are many with excellent spatial skills such as pilots or astronauts, versus women who have difficulties in locating where she parked her car. But overall when we compare the two genders, most cognitive abilities are very similar.

Maccoby and Jacklin reviewed and analyzed scores of experiments and compiled them in their book, “The Psychology of Sex Differences” (1974). Their research revealed that there are only a few statistically significant differences between men and women. They reported that:
1. there are almost no cognitive differences between men and women
2. the variance within genders is much wider than average variances between genders
3. some of the very few differences may be: a) culturally based and or b) biologically based
In other words, while men and women are more alike, humans are very complex and have vast individual differences that far exceed a few genuine differences (Hyde, 2007).

Tobias also agrees and emphasizes in her popular book “Overcoming Math Anxiety,” (1993) that while there is a slight difference between boys’ and girls’ SAT math scores, the very large variation of scores within each gender is far wider than the insignificant difference between boys and girls (see Fig 1a and 1b). Tobias also argues that many cultures create a stereotype threat in girls and women, with a false belief that they are not good at math. Evidence against this self-defeating attitude against math was provided by last year’s top three scoring American students in the International Math Olympiad, who were all girls (New York Times, 2008).

Even though Maccoby and Jacklin’s reports do not show statistically significant differences, Brizendine points out that many earlier research which showed insignificant statistics, may have been biased by politically correct attitudes of that time:

"There are those [of us] who wish there were no differences between men and women. [At Berkeley, in the 1970s] the buzzword among young women was “mandatory unisex”… must be the norm. The biological reality, however, it that there is no unisex brain…. But pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women" (Brizendine, 2006, pg. 160-161).

If we are so much alike, what are the significant differences? Before we answer this question, a little review of statistics would be beneficial. Cohen’s d significance value, compares different average scores and ranks the magnitude of difference as:

None to slight: d = 0 to 0.35
Moderate: d = .36 to .65
Large: d = .66 to 1.00

In her best selling book “You Just Don’t Understand” (1991) Tannen analyzes many supposed differences in men and women’s communication, by combining her own training as a linguist with extensive research by psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Citing scores of studies, she points out that “from infanthood, boys and girls are acculturated differently” (Greenwood as cited in Tannen (1991), pg 256). Tannen thoroughly analyzes and details the myriad, yet subtle distinctions between men and women’s different choice of words and their often contradictory intentions and meanings. One of the more useful differences these researchers uncovered is linguistic. She calls this dichotomous usage of words “genderlects,” which could lead to psychological and cultural divisions, miscommunication, and conflict. I have tabulated her comparisons in Table 1.

Tannen explains this different usage of words contain “metamessages” with different information about people’s implied intentions, attitudes and underlying meanings. Unfortunately men and women are not always aware that they are speaking two genderlects within apparently the same language. By understanding the linguistic differences we can distill the actual emotional and cognitive content. For example, Tannen argues (irony intended) that women’s language and psychology is mostly relational and affiliative, while men’s language tends to be hierarchical and competitive. This could cause each gender to perceive that his or her “beloved partner seems irrational and obstinate….” But on an positive note she adds, “Understanding the other’s ways of talking is a giant leap across the communication gap… preventing disagreements from spiraling out of control… and a giant step toward opening lines of communication.” (Tannen, 1991, p 298.)

The publication of Tannen’s book inspired many other researchers to support, refute or expand upon her claims. Consequently, her book is one of the most often cited in social science and psychology journal articles on gender and communication. For example, Hyde (2007) statistically calculated data from 46 separate meta-analyses that examined scores of psychological variables, such as math skills, mental rotation, communication techniques, aggression, friendliness, self-esteem, depression, moral reasoning, etc. She reported 78% of the characteristics had differences of near zero. The few significant differences were throwing velocity (i.e.: baseball) d = 2.18 in favor of men. Aggression was d = 0.50 men more aggressive. Helpfulness d = 0.74 with men more helpful – but only when onlookers were present; when no one was watching men’s helping behavior, it dropped to d = -0.02 (the negative sign means women had higher scores).

The other significant gender difference is mental rotation or spatial skills, which was first researched by Shepard and Metzler (1971) and later supported and expanded by Kimura and colleagues (1970 through 2006). Figure 2 below is one example of Shepard & Metzler’s spatial mental rotation experiments. Kimura’s experiments showed d = 0.56 higher scores for men, which means they were more accurate and faster in picking the correct rotation of an object. The practical interpretation of these experiments is how it corroborates the common jokes about when a couple is lost, the wife does not mind stopping and asking for directions, while her husband is reluctant. Asking for directions fulfills the woman’s natural inclination for social affinity, seeking safety and (pragmatically) saving time and gas. Hunter and gatherer theory helps us understand that asking for directions threatens the man’s unconscious pride in his hunting, path-finding or spatial skills. Couples who do not understand this innate difference could often experience needless conflict.

Figure 2

Rotation test

From where do these verbal and spatial gender differences originate? Could it come from our biology or learning from our environment? Social scientists, biologists, psychologists and anthropologists have debated the nature versus nurture influences on human development for many decades. In the last 20 to 30 years, twin studies have mostly answered this question: it is both nature and nurture (Haugaard, 2008). Through research and statistics of twins (by nature genetically identical) who were separated at birth and raised by different families and environments (nurture) show that approximately 50% of their development was genetic or by nature and approximately 50% of their development was affected by their environment or nurture. Accordingly we can recognize that environment or sociocultural conditions have huge effects on shaping our gender specific behavior. Hyde (2007), Tannen (1992), Eagly and Wood (1999) and others, explain the interaction between physical abilities and culture, widen some gender differences. This epigenetic theory points to men’s larger physical size, which affects division of labor or social functions, which in turn affects behavior. Larger physical size and strength also facilitates aggression, which leads to warfare, and leads to dominance. Applying this theory to thousands of generations of selection, widens the physical, behavioral and communication gaps between genders.

Consumer level literature on gender differences is most famously represented by John Gray’s best-selling book, “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” (1992). This was Gray’s effort to help men and women understand each other and reduce conflict. Some of Gray’s observations are similar to Tannen’s. For example Gray also writes that “Venusians’ ” communication and feelings are relational, while “Martians values power, competency, efficiency and achievement” (Gray, 1992, p, 16). He also emphasizes a difference, that when under stress Martians retreat into their caves to think through a problem (independence), while Venusians want to solve problems by discussing it (relational). It seems possible that Gray derived his beliefs from similar social science research articles. But unlike Maccoby and Jacklin’s “The Psychology of Sex Differences” which has 15 pages of references, Gray has none. Although one could say Gray’s book was written for a consumer audience, Tannen’s best selling book, references 10 pages of peer reviewed reports from dozens of researchers; References span 50 pages in Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” (which is also written for a consumer audience). This shows that Gray’s reductionist method of distilling complex human behavior to just two aspects is much too simplistic. Human psychology deals with multiple variables. Perhaps Gray's over-simplification of men and women’s cognition down to just two variables, was designed to make it digestible by his lay audience.* Nevertheless, highlighting only two aspects of gender cognition and communication problems is better than not knowing about any differences. If Gray’s advice were ineffective, his book would not have been purchased by millions of people and translated into over 20 languages.

*It should be noted that Gray received his Ph.D. from an unaccredited correspondence school that had its license revoked and forced to cease its operations by a California court order in 2000 (U.S. General Accounting Office Report, 2004.)

An alternate view on miscommunication between couples comes from John Gottman, a psychology researcher and professor at Washington State University, who has conducted extensive research and written several books on relationships. Instead of just focusing on couple’s conflicts, he focused on their positive interactions. He wondered why are there significant numbers of couples who often have very volatile arguments, actually end up having stable and successful long term marriages? Gottman observed not only the arguments – which are easy to see and what most people notice – he also carefully recorded those couple’s positive interactions. As with most psychology researchers, Gottman utilizes statistics, in analyzing communication between hundreds of couples. From this he derived a clever yet simple mathematical formula to gauge the health of a marriage, versus the probability of divorce: If the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a couple is less than five to one, that marriage might be in trouble. Gottman and colleagues discussed this in depth in their book “The Mathematics of Marriage” (2005). Similarly Notarius and Markman also offer another statistical analysis on marriage communication conflict: “One zinger may erase 20 acts of kindness” (Notarius and Markman, as cited in Fletcher and Fitness (1995, p. 172).

The roots of cognitive gender differences

Are gender communication differences created by nature/biological, or conditioned by nurture/cultural? It is of course both. Sex is naturally biological and gender is cultural and psychological. There are thousands of gender studies that analyze biological, environmental, cultural and psychological variables, to name just a few. Theories from all of those should be considered in order to understand gender differences in communication. This section addresses the biological versus social roots of gender cognition and communication differences.

Nature’s role in gender cognition differences

One possible genetic explanation for why females have better verbal skills may be due to the higher incidence of defects on the male’s Y chromosome, which often affect cognition and speech (Maccoby, 1990). Females have two X chromosomes; males have one X and one Y. A male’s Y chromosome is missing one “leg” or approximately 25 percent of genetic material. When there is a defect in the genes that control verbal ability, there is no complementary gene to replace it. Females’ second X chromosome has this “extra leg” of genetic insurance, which usually replaces the defective genes. Therefore this is a partially inversed impression that women have superior verbal abilities; the alternate reason is because more males have genetic Y chromosome speech problems – such as with Autism – which is approximately four times more prevalent in boys than girls (Haugarrd, 2008).

As discussed earlier, it is well established that males are more physically aggressive than females. Experiments by Joslyn (1973, as cited in Maccoby) showed a simple biological reason: When testosterone is injected into female monkeys, it often leads them to attack and eventually become dominant over male monkeys in their group. Similar results were obtained with mice. Testosterone injections into female birds – who normally do not sing – liberate their vocal musical skills (Blum, as cited in the New York Times, 2000). A reporter for the New York Times who required weekly injections of testosterone, feels surges of energy and is driven to pick a fight with strangers almost immediately after leaving his doctor’s office (New York Times, 2000). That can partially explain how men’s testosterone correlates with aggression and verbal communication. This makes men appear to be more assertive than women, but due to hormones and social conditioning, men are subconsciously striving for dominance.

Conversely, Kimura believes that while the environment and socialization greatly influences gender roles, she and her colleague’s (1994) hormonal research showed women’s spatial skills co-vary with their monthly cycles and the associated changes in estrogen and testosterone. This was corroborated with post-menopausal hormone therapy that indicates estrogen may negatively affect the brain’s visuospatial ability, while positively enhancing verbal ability. On the other hand, men’s testosterone goes through seasonal cycles. Kimura and Hampson’s research also showed a slight seasonal improvement in men’s spatial skills especially during the spring-time. Their possible evolutionary explanation is, “Conceivably, it may have been useful for men's spatial ability to be enhanced in spring in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, when the home camp might be relocated, or hunting might be more intensive…” (2004, pg. 58).

Brizendine (2006) agrees with the hormonal effects on women’s verbal ability,
"I often joke with my female grad students that they should take their oral exams on day twelve of their cycles, which is the peak of their verbal performance… or for wives wanting to win a fight with their husbands" (pg. 46).

Nurture or culture’s role in gender cognition differences

“Baby X” experiments conducted by Eagly, et al. (1992, as cited in Hyde, 2007), demonstrated how gender roles are subtly enforced upon us as early as infancy: When a toy Jack-in-the-box surprised an infant and results in crying, and the child was dressed as a boy, observers described him as being “angry;” when the same infant was dressed as a girl, people said she was “frightened.” That shows how well entrenched and mostly unnoticed societal pressures, shape our language usage and resulting cognition differences between males and females.

Many parents teach their sons, “Boys don’t cry.” But that can condition males who are handicapped with repressed feelings that are not easily felt nor calmly expressed. That is an unfortunate cultural root of impaired emotions, which often contributes to conflict.

Physical cognitive differences

While volunteering in the parent teacher association at my son’s school, I was amazed at how three mothers were simultaneously conversing about five topics, in two languages, sorting papers, typing on a computer, chatting on the telephone, and when a child came over to ask a question they were able to change their conversations immediately. These women have super multi-tasking powers, which would cripple most males. What might be a reason for this amazing ability? The corpus callosum, which is the large bundle of nerve fibers connecting the brain’s two hemispheres. Using fMRI imaging, Davitzikos and colleagues (1998) found that women’s corpus callosum is larger or thicker, which might facilitate bilateral neuronal activation, “which could facilitate interhemispheric communication.” This would be analogous to a woman’s brain or computer having a multi-core CPU (central processing unit), while a man’s brain drags along on a much older and slower single CPU. Fortunately Davitzikos speculates that men’s neuronal communication deficiency between the two half of their brain allows for localized procession of cognition which leads to better specialization of abilities, such as spatial skills.

The Consequences of Miscommunication

Conflict is an inevitable part of human existence. Miscommunication can create and increase conflict. Understanding miscommunication can reduce conflict. But how can we measure conflict? Conflicts in its countless forms would be too wide of a subject to analyze in this paper. Obviously, marital conflict and high divorce rates can be a very unfortunate and partial measure of miscommunication. Another type of social science research reveals surprising and important data: The no-means-yes contradiction, which often leads to unwanted sex for women. Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh (1988) as cited in Sprecher, et al. (1994) investigated this type of miscommunication with anonymous and confidential surveys of female college students. Surprisingly, 39 percent of college women used this “token resistance” against their intimate partner. This is one aspect of a serious gender communication difference that obviously and unfortunately leads to horrible violations. Firth and Kitzinger (1997) research revealed similar observations that men’s perception of a woman’s refusal of his sexual advances are often wrong. That leads to a vicious cycle of miscommunication, where the myth of a woman’s refusal is misinterpreted as “seductive teasing” and unfortunately reinforces an “adversarial orientation to women” (Malamuth & Brown, 1994, as cited in Firth and Kitzinger, 1997).


We have reviewed cognitive gender research by social scientists, linguists, psychologists, neurologists, who have invested great effort to find significant cognitive gender differences. However, there are only a few gender differences in cognition and behavior. Social learning theories cover the role of nurturing. Nature or biology explains the neural-structural differences in our brains, which can finally be seen and understood with the advent of fMRI imaging. Endocrinology and genetics have cleared up much of the mysterious effects of our hormones.
How can we use the results from these scientific studies of gender? We can teach men that it is socially acceptable to be more communicative, nurturing and empathic; and women can be assertive without giving the appearance of being strident.

When two nations have a dispute, skilled diplomats who understand each side’s issues, culture and thinking, can skillfully and peacefully reduce or resolve the conflict. Similarly men and women can learn that our similarities outweigh our differences. Instead of emphasizing, denigrating and perpetuating the few gender differences in cognition and communication, we should adopt a different cognition: Within every relationship there is a different “chemistry” which every couple has to learn to perceive, understand and respect. These differences within individuals are far more important than simple and harmful gender stereotypes that blind us to seeing, cherishing and making the best of our spouse’s unique personality.

Table 1.
Author's tabulation of Tannen's comparison of linguistic gender differences
Female Male

• Verbal aggression
• Connection
• Support
• Understanding
• Feeling
• Sharing
• Relationships
• Interdependence
• Rapport
• Connection
• Closeness
• Talk intimately
• Interaction
• Gatherer
• Relationships
• Group
• Cooperation
• Egalitarian
• Fleeting thoughts
• Talk
• Comply

• Interrogative
• Unassertive

Speaking at home
• Free to talk without judgment
from others

Speaking in public:
• Connect
• Putting self on display
• Have I been helpful?
• Do you like me?

Women’s body language
• Face to face
• Eye contact
• Interaction

Women’s gossip
• Interest in other people

Cultural icons
• Talkative

• Physical aggression
• Competition
• Challenge
• Advice
• Solution
• Solving
• Hierarchy
• Independence
• Report
• Status
• Independence
• Do things together
• Information
• Hunter
• Silent
• Individual
• Authority
• Hierarchical
• Dismiss fleeting thoughts
• Activities
• Defy

• Decisive
• Assertive

Speaking at home
• Free from proving self, without
having to impress others

Speaking in public
• Impress
• Claim attention
• Have I won?
• Do you respect me?

Men’s body language
• Parallel or body at angle
• Averted gaze
• Information

Men’s gossip
• Tactics

Cultural icons
• Strong and silent




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copyright © 2009 by Jason Jem