Women’s Advantages in Social Cognition
An evolved advantage?
Posted October 23, 2019 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
The issue of sex differences in brain and cognition (who is “smarter”) has been a topic of discussion and debate for millennia and is a continuing source of friction among scientists today. Among psychologists and throughout the 20th century, the study of sex differences in cognition, and more recently in brain-imaging studies, has been without any overarching theory. Differences emerged in areas organized around verbal (e.g., reading), quantitative, and spatial abilities, and there were various social and sometimes biological explanations of them but no integrated approach to their study.
An evolutionary perspective provides such a framework or at least a different way of thinking about the issue. First, from this perspective, we should distinguish between evolutionarily novel and evolved abilities. For instance, much is made about the sex differences in mathematics (small on average but more boys and men at the extreme), but mathematics is a relatively recent (in evolutionary time) invention and does not emerge without a lot of formal schooling. Any sex differences here are potentially interesting in the modern world but any evolutionary influence on them has to be secondary to more primary or evolved differences or related to differences in engagement in this academic domain.
An evolutionary perspective focuses on more universal cognitive abilities, such as language, face processing, and spatial navigation, and here we anticipate that sex differences will show a nuanced pattern with girls and women having advantages in some areas and boys and men having advantages in others. These universal abilities can be organized around the domains of folk psychology, folk biology, and folk physics. These refer to brain and cognitive systems for understanding the self, other people, and group dynamics (folk psychology); for understanding other species that support survival in traditional contexts (folk biology, e.g., as related to hunting); and, systems for navigating in, mentally representing, and manipulating (e.g., tool construction) the physical world (folk physics). With respect to these domains, the most consistent sex differences are found for some aspects of folk psychology, favoring girls and women, and some aspects of folk physics, favoring boys and men.
I’ll take up the latter in a separate post, and for now, focus on girls’ and women’s advantages in folk psychology. These are not found in all areas of folk psychology but are consistently found in areas that support the development and maintenance of one-on-one relationships and for managing interpersonal social dynamics. The associated skills include sensitivity to subtlety in other people’s facial expressions and nonverbal behavior (e.g., gestures), some aspects of language, and in making inferences about the thoughts and feelings of other people (called theory of mind).
Girls and women are better than boys and men at interpreting and sending nonverbal social messages, including skill at reading emotional states conveyed in facial expressions, gesture, and body language and in generating nuance in the social use of these forms of communication. The sex difference for each individual skill (e.g., identifying the emotion associated with a facial expression) is small to moderate.
However, when all nonverbal cues are present, which is a more accurate assessment of these skills in the real world, about 17 out of 20 girls and women are more accurate at decoding the social cues of other people than is the average same-age boy or man. These advantages are especially large in girls’ and women’s communications with each other, that is, they read other women better than they read men.
Although girls and women don’t always talk more than boys and men, there are some developmental differences. Girls generally talk more than boys during the first two years of life and up through adolescence, but boys (at least some of them) may talk more during adolescence. Independent of how much they talk, there are sex differences in what or whom they talk about. In a study of 319 conversations across various contexts, Dahmardeh and Dunbar (2017) found that groups of women talked about personal issues (60% of conversational words) about twice as often as did groups of men (32% of words), whereas men talked about factual topics (e.g., sports, politics; 28% of words) more often than did women (17% of words). There are also sex differences in aspects of language production, language comprehension, and the pragmatics (social use) of language.
Boys and men are more likely to use language as a means to express or attempt to establish their social dominance, whereas girls and women are more likely to use language to build equalitarian and socially supportive dyadic relationships, as I mentioned in a previous post [Boys’ and Girls’ Culture]; talking about personal issues is an important part of these relationships. Outside of these relationships, girls and women can use language aggressively, as a way to denigrate and socially exclude actual or perceived competitors, which is called relational aggression and is discussed in a separate post [Do Women Fight?].
Girls and women also have advantages for many basic language-related skills, including the length and quality of utterances (e.g., the grammatical structure of women’s utterances is typically better than that of men); the ease and speed of articulating complex words; the ability to generate strings of words; the ease of word learning and speed of retrieving individual words from long-term memory; and, skill at remembering and discriminating basic language sounds from one another. Girls are less likely to show language delays and there are fewer girls than boys for some (not all) language disorders, such as stuttering.
Theory of mind goes at least one step beyond the sex differences in basic social competencies (e.g., sensitivity to facial expressions) and represents the critical ability to make conscious inferences about the intentions and beliefs of other people and to infer whether the facial expressions or other cues are an accurate reflection of the actual thoughts and feelings of the individual.
Early studies suggested there were no sex differences in theory of mind, but the tasks used in these studies were too easy. Studies using more complex tasks suggest girls and women often have an advantage. For instance, Bosacki (2000; Bosacki & Astington, 1999) found that 3 out of 4 12-year-old girls were more skilled than the average same-age boy at making inferences about the thoughts, feelings, and social perspective of their peers. The extent of these differences and their development, however, remains to be fully determined.
From an evolutionary perspective, one question concerns why girls and women have advantages in these particular areas. If we look at primates more broadly, we find that females often show greater sensitivity to subtle social cues and show more indictors of empathy (e.g., mimicking the facial displays of others) than do males, likely related to females’ greater engagement with offspring and in many species their formation of same-sex kin-based networks to provide social support and protection. In addition, and in comparison to boys and men, the folk psychological abilities discussed here are especially critical for the formation and maintenance of the emotionally-close friendships that are an important source of social support for girls and women.
These abilities also provide an advantage in the social maneuvering (e.g., spreading false rumors about competitors and doing so in ways that are plausibly denial) that is more central to the ways in which girls and women relative to boys and men compete with one another.
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