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What Men and Women Do Differently and Why It Matters

How we read each other's moods varies widely across genders.

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It can be precarious to discuss differences between the sexes. Well-known CEOs get themselves into hot water by suggesting that women (but not men) should avoid asking for raises. Equally famous university presidents run afoul of public opinion with comments suggesting that women may not be as innately good at math as male counterparts. Despite the political mine field of gender, however, there are certainly some differences between the sexes, whether biological or socialized.

One such difference is anger.

Although it has a bad reputation, anger can be a wonderful emotion. People feel angry when they, or people, property, or ideas they care about, are threatened. Anger has physical and motivational consequences: Hearts beat faster, pump blood to the extremities, and prepare us to engage in conflict. Anger is also used expressively as a sign of strength, as when chimpanzees bare their teeth, puff themselves up, and scare away potential rivals.

It is on this last point that we see interesting sex differences in recent research. As a social emotion, anger communicates a certain amount of dominance as well as competence. In one series of studies researchers had participants rate faces for affiliation (friendliness and nurturing) and dominance (potential threat). When the exact same person's face displayed anger they were perceived as more dominant than when they had a happy expression (which was seen as affiliative).

Interestingly, showing anger has all sorts of social advantages: People who see an angry expression are more likely to think that the angry person has high status, for instance, than if that same individual displays sadness. For example, managers who react to bad news with anger are more likely to be seen as competent than those who sulk. Interestingly, though, the research shows that this effect only holds true for male managers—and this is where the differences begin to emerge.

Because women's faces, in general, are more likely to be viewed as affiliative, they are harder for us to view when angry. In one study, researchers used biological sensors to measure subjects' "startle-blink" response. First, they showed participants images of faces—some of them angry men or women—and then blared a loud and surprising horn. Research participants were far more likely to startle after seeing an angry male face than a similarly angry female face. It may be that people are likely to see anger on a female face as a "mixed signal," in which assumed affiliative qualities bump up against assumed threatening qualities.

In a final study, researchers had participants play a money game with a virtual collaborator. For the image of these "collaborators," researchers showed participants faces with either an angry, neutral, or happy expression. The rules of the game were complicated, but what's important to note is that participants received the highest payoff when they were willing to cooperate with the stranger by investing larger amounts of their personal stake of money. Only two-thirds of participants overall chose this cooperative option and more of them chose to cooperate with a male partner than a female one, regardless of the emotional expression of the male image shown to them. When making decisions about potential female collaborators, however, expressions made a world of difference. Participants were willing to cooperate with neutral or happy women but avoided cooperating with angry-faced women.

Here's the bottom line: For whatever reason—biology, social roles, socialization—women seem to be penalized for expressing anger, despite its benefits and naturalness. It is yet another example of a gender inequality with real-world consequences: Imagine, for example, women being viewed as hostile in the workplace for showing the same emotional backbone as male counterparts. Critics of angry women should bear in mind that anger is part of our natural psychological architecture and that penalizing women for expressing it is like suggesting that they try to prevent their eyes from adjusting to changes in light.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is fascinated by so-called negative emotions and the way people avoid the difficult aspects of human psychology despite their benefits. He has written about these topics in his new book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success. Fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.

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