The Better Sex

Are men and women really that different? The question touches everything from sex and love to thinking and arguing. Here are some answers.

Get Ready for the Real Battle of the Sexes

16 ways to shape up your mental ammunition.

The question of whether men and women differ in cognitive abilities such as intelligence wages on in psychology. Though we are far from a resolution, you can provide your own test data with some help from the fascinating and important theory of multiple intelligences. Developed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, the theory proposes that we have not one, not two, but eight (at least) different types of intelligence. Claims of one person or group’s overall superiority over another’s now shifts to the more realistic approach in which people's strengths and weaknesses are seen as falling along a set of distinct domains. Multiple intelligences theory is important because it changes the question from “who is smarter” to “how are you smart?”

In the traditional male-female ability war, men are seen as dominating in math and spatial skills and women as having the edge with words. However, this overly simplistic dichotomy is now discredited because it fails to capture people of each gender can out-perform the other gender on any given task. Surely, you’ve known plenty of females who can perform complex math calculations in their head and plenty of males who can’t divide 100 by 11 without using a calculator. This situation is clouded further by the many confounding factors, not the least of which is the self-handicapping that people engage in if they buy into traditional gender stereotypes. This is one reason that, as psychologists observed for many decades, girls seem to “lose” their math abilities once they reach adolescence and realize that it's not "feminine" to be good at high school algebra.

Unfortunately, there are no studies in which actual abilities are compared between men and women in the multiple intelligence facets. The closest we can come is a study of perceptions of ability differences — in other words, how people view the own multiple intelligences of men and women. In a study of 318 Americans and 253 Britons, University College London psychologist Adrian Furnham asked participants to rate themselves, their romantic partner, and several famous people (e.g. Bill Gates) on overall intelligence and 10 (rather than the usual 8) of Gardner’s multiple intelligences.  As was found in other studies of self-rated intelligence, men believed themselves to be smarter than did women with estimates of 115 vs. 110 (the population mean IQ is set at 100 on most tests). Men have no problem seeing themselves as much smarter than the average person. More importantly, for our purposes, are the perceived sex differences in scores along the multiple intelligence dimensions. 

Before we get to the actual findings, though, it’s time to put your beliefs to the test. For the following 17 questions, I want you to predict who would be more likely to get the answers right.  You don’t need to record your answers, but it would help if you could remember whether you gave the point to males or females.

Battle of the Sexes Quiz

  1. Hum the tune of your country’s national anthem (note: this requires that you actually know your country’s national anthem!).
  2. Describe to a stranger the route between your home and the nearest grocery store.
  3. Talk a friend into lending you $20.
  4. Correctly perform the steps to a line dance, such as the “Electric Slide”.
  5. Decide whether this statement is true or false: The product of 8 × 3 × 3 × 2 is less than the product of 18 × 16. (It’s true)
  6. Play out all the 7 letters in one move in a game of Scrabble.
  7. Quickly arrive at the solution to a Rubik’s cube.
  8. Get an indoor orchid to bloom after it’s gone dormant.
  9. Make yourself feel better when you’re having a really bad day.
  10. Decide how best to introduce yourself to a stranger who intimidates you.
  11. Figure out how much tea there is in China (best estimate is 1 million tons at any one time).
  12. Do sharks, like other fish, have bones? (they don’t)
  13. Recognize the difference between the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s “War of 1812” Overture.
  14. Complete a 1,000 word essay without making any spelling mistakes.
  15. Figure out whether you’ve actually hurt the feelings of someone you unintentionally made fun of.
  16. Benefit from a setback by learning how better to handle the situation the next time.
  17. Follow along to the instructions in a basic yoga class.

Now let’s see what these questions mean, and whether your predictions fit with the data on the male-female rating study.  First, here are brief definitions of the 8 multiple intelligences included in this quiz:

Linguistic:Think in words and use language to express and understand complex meanings. 

Logical-Mathematical:Think of cause and effect connections and to understand relationships among actions, objects or ideas.

Spatial: Think in pictures and to perceive the visual world accurately. 

Musical intelligence: Sensitivity to music, sounds, tonal patterns, and the human voice. 

Bodily-Kinesthetic: Think in movements and to use the body in skilled and complicated ways for self-expression and to achieve goals. 

Interpersonal: Think about and understand another person. 

Intrapersonal: Think about and understand one’s self. 

Naturalistic: Understand the natural world, including plants, animals, and scientific studies. 

Here’s the key to the Battle of the Sexes quiz:

Musical= 1, 13

Interpersonal =3, 15

Intrapersonal= 9, 16

Naturalistic= 8, 12

Spatial= 2, 7

Logical-mathematical= 5, 11

Linguistic= 6, 14

Bodily-kinesthetic= 4, 17

Now compare your ratings of men and women with those of the participants in the Furnham study. Men gave themselves higher ratings on logical, spatial, and naturalistic intelligence. They rated their female partners as higher on linguistic, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and interpersonal. People’s estimates of themselves and their partners parallel if not actual ability differences, then perceptions of ability differences. Interestingly, Americans rated Prince Charles as higher in intelligence than did Britons, but that’s another story.

Armed with the test items and these predictions, you’re ready to embark on your own personal battle. Ask your male and female friends to answer these questions (but don’t show them this blog till you’ve gotten their responses). How do their actual responses differ from the gender-stereotyped predicted pattern?

Looking at intelligence as a more multifaceted quality than a simple math-verbal  distinction can help us understand each individual’s strengths.  We can only hope that in intelligence, at least, we turn the battle into a détente.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

Reference: Furnham, A., Tang, T., Lester, D., O'Connor, R., & Montgomery, R. (2002). Estimates of ten multiple intelligences: Sex and national differences in the perception of oneself and famous people. European Psychologist7(4), 245-255. doi:10.1027//1016-9040.7.4.245