Are Men “Toxic Problem-Solvers?”

Sex differences in problem-focused and emotion-focused support.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

My wife was recently explaining to me that I often jump too quickly from hearing about a problem to saying, “How can we solve this?” Instead, she suggests that sometimes those close to me might simply want to hear me say something more Rogerian, such as: “I hear you saying this is stressful for you.” When our son asked what we were talking about, she jokingly invented a new term: “toxic problem-solving.”  

Sex differences in coping strategies

It turns out that there are several decades of research examining sex differences in how people cope with stress. Early findings suggested that women incline more towards what is called “emotion-focused coping,” whereas men lean more toward “problem-focused” coping (e.g., Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). 

When I dug a little, I was surprised to find that the research findings have not been consistent in supporting that sex difference. In the old days, I’d have hunted down some findings on the side I wanted to argue, and then someone could have countered with their own selection of studies to make the opposite case. But in the modern era, we look for a meta-analysis (a statistical aggregation of findings from many studies on the same topic).

Fortunately, Lisa Tamres, Denise Janicki, and Vicki Helgeson published a meta-analysis of a large number of studies on sex differences in coping behavior. Their results indicate that, compared to men, women are indeed more likely to engage in emotion-focused coping. The biggest sex differences were for ruminating, positive self-talk, and wishful thinking. Women were also substantially more likely to seek social support, which could be either emotion or problem-focused. 

But are men more likely to engage in problem-focused coping? Not exactly. It turns out that women were also more likely than men to take steps to actually change the problem. Men were simply lower in all categories of coping. The only place where men’s coping strategies were equal to women’s was for the category of “denial.” 

Tamres and her colleagues also conducted a follow-up study to delve more deeply into how men and women coped with either a) freshman year in college, or b) recovering from heart surgery. Their results again supported the general conclusion that women were more likely to engage in all kinds of coping. But besides comparing the two sexes, they also looked at the relative use of each coping strategy within each sex. Putting aside what the other sex did, which choices from the menu of coping strategies were people more likely to choose? Here, they found that, for men, problem-solving coping was, in fact, the most common strategy. Seeking social support was the most common strategy that women used.  

So, the general conclusion is that men cope less in general, but when they do, they are more likely to prioritize problem-focused coping. Women engage in just as much problem-focused coping as men, however. Women are, at the same time, much more likely to engage in other coping strategies, especially seeking support from others.

Sex similarities in providing social support

When my wife joked about men being “toxic problem-solvers,” she wasn’t so much thinking about how men approach their own problems, but how they provide support for others. Are men, in general, more likely than women to focus on problem-solving when they are trying to lend social support to other people?

A study by Goldsmith and Dun addressed this—by asking communication students to record what they’d say to another person experiencing stress—a best friend who had failed an important exam, a freshman who was having trouble making friends and getting dates, a close friend who had been dumped by her boyfriend, and several other problems. The researchers coded the students’ supportive responses into those that focused on evaluating the problem (e.g., “Failing an exam is serious but it’s not the end of the world”), addressing the emotion (e.g., “You must feel awful”), or identifying actions the other person could take (e.g., “Study harder for the next exam”). 

Once again, there was an overall sex difference—in that women’s responses were 26 percent longer than were men’s. 

But as indicated in the figure, there was no substantial sex difference in the type of support that men and women offered. For both sexes, problem-centered support was most prevalent, and emotion-centered was least likely. 

Original figure, based on larger table in Goldsmith & Dun.
Types of support provided by men and women.
Source: Original figure, based on a larger table in Goldsmith & Dun.

I began this blog thinking I’d complain about the tendency to label something neutral or nice as bad when a man does it, with a side visit to terms such as mansplaining, benevolent sexism, and micro-aggressions. But in the case of “toxic problem-solving,” there is not much of a sex difference to explain. The research on sex differences in coping and support was done decades ago, but interestingly, the stereotype lives on, even in a couple where both partners have Ph.D.s as research psychologists. My wife, well trained in rigorous causal reasoning, will likely point out that just because there is no average sex difference in the population, it doesn’t mean I am personally innocent of jumping too quickly to problem-solving when someone around me just wants social support. I hear what you’re saying, dear, and it must be stressful. 

Sex differences, large and small

The stereotype about a sex difference in social support and coping is perhaps larger than the actual difference, but I've discussed some very large sex differences in the book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.


Below are a few earlier blog posts on this topic you may find of interest:

The seven worst things about being a male: The psychological burdens of carrying around a Y chromosome. The seven best things about being a male: The advantages of carrying a Y chromosome. Men and women are very (or is it only slightly) different: Sex differences and similarities can be confusing.  Why are Hollywood actors paired with such young women? Are Hollywood directors trying to relive their youth, or please the audience? The cost of a woman versus the cost of a man: What do women pay for in a man? Does a woman’s company always cost more than a man’s? Behavioral economics meets bride price, dowry, and prostitution. 

Goldsmith, D. J., & Dun, S. A. (1997). Sex differences and similarities in the communication of social support. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 14(3), 317-337.

Tamres, L. K., Janicki, D., & Helgeson, V. S. (2002). Sex differences in coping behavior: A meta-analytic review and an examination of relative coping. Personality and social psychology review, 6(1), 2-30