Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Women’s Intuition: Myth or Reality?

Do women have some special ability?

We've all heard the term "women's intuition," but is it real, or just a myth? What does the research evidence suggest? Do women have some sort of "psychic" ability to discern others' feelings and what they are thinking?

There is a much more logical, and research-based answer. Research on nonverbal communication skill has clearly shown that women are, as a group, better at reading facial expressions of emotions than are men. As a result, women are more likely to pick up on the subtle emotional messages being sent by others.

Women are also better at expressing emotions through their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body, particularly positive emotions. Men are better at controlling felt emotions and at hiding emotions behind a "poker face." There is also evidence that women are seen as more empathic than men, and that they are more likely to see themselves as empathic. In other words, women tend to be more "open" to others' emotional messages. This may add to the perception that women have some special ability to intuit what others are feeling or thinking.

Where does this ability to read emotions come from? It has been suggested that it is mainly due to social power. Women, who have been historically lower in social power, spend more time observing and scrutinizing those in power (i.e., men, and powerful women), and become more attuned to their nonverbal cues. It has also been suggested that evolutionary elements have been involved, selecting females who have better ability to decode the needs of children and potential mates.

Remember that sex differences, such as skill in communicating emotions, are group-based, and that there are plenty of men who are skilled at reading others' emotions. Moreover, there is evidence that people can improve their nonverbal communication skill, particularly their ability to read and send emotional messages.

So, is women's intuition myth or reality? Mostly reality, and it is based on gender differences in nonverbal communication skill. In fact, the term "women's intuition" may have been created by emotionally-clueless men.

References:

Ickes, W. (2003). Everyday mindreading: Understanding what people think and feel. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Myers, D.G. (2002). Intuition: Its powers and perils. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Riggio, R.E. (1987). The charisma quotient. New York: Dodd Mead.

 


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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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