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6 Subtle Psychological Differences Between Men and Women

Recent science explores the puzzle of gender differences.

Emanuele Spies / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Emanuele Spies / Wikimedia Commons

Some psychological differences between men and women are visible to the naked eye. Women, for instance, tend to be warmer and more sensitive (on average) while men tend to be more assertive, research suggests.

Others are more difficult to detect. Here are six lesser-known differences between men and women found in recent scientific studies.

#1: Women were better at detecting expressions of disgust

Conventional wisdom and a litany of past research suggest that women have a higher emotional quotient (EQ) than men. But is this really the case?

A paper published in the journal Emotion added nuance to this long-standing debate. Measuring the degree to which men and women were able to accurately recognize facial expressions of emotion displayed in a series of photos, the researchers found that women were significantly better at identifying disgust.

Why? The researchers invoked evolutionary theory as a possible explanation. Because women are the child-bearing gender, they may have a heightened sensitivity to potential contaminants in their environment and might, therefore, be more likely to identify signals of disgust. Conversely, men may show less disgust sensitivity as a way to emphasize their strength and virility.

#2: Men reported more loneliness earlier in life; women reported more of it later in life

Stereotypes of loneliness suggest that it increases with age. We begin life with a wide and dynamic social network. Over time, people go their separate ways and friends and acquaintances become harder to come by.

But does the stereotype match reality? A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the development of loneliness across the lifespan. Interestingly, the researchers found that the trajectory of loneliness across the lifespan depended on one’s gender — men experienced more loneliness in midlife and women experienced more loneliness in old age.

#3: Men spent more time relaxing than women

Scientists at the University of Barcelona in Spain found that men spent a bigger portion of the day engaging in leisure pursuits than women did. This was based on a study of 869 Spanish men and women between the ages of 18 and 24. The researchers asked participants to report the amount of time they devoted to various leisure activities such as watching television, hobbies, socializing with family and friends, practicing a sport, attending cultural events, or hosting events.

According to the results, men, on average, engaged in approximately 113 minutes of daily leisure activities while women totaled approximately 101 minutes. (These numbers reflect weekday averages, not weekends.) This might not sound like a big difference, but it adds up over time. At this rate, men spend an extra hour and a half per week, or an additional 70 hours per year, engaging in leisure activities.

There is, however, a catch. When asked to report the satisfaction derived from leisure pursuits, women reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction. So, while men had more leisure time than women, women actually enjoyed their leisure activities more than men.

#4: Women and men may speak different languages—sort of

A team of psychologists led by Priyanka Joshi of San Francisco State University examined the degree to which men and women relied on "communicative abstraction" to verbally convey their ideas and emotions. Communicative abstraction, according to the researchers, reflects the tendency of people to use "abstract speech that focuses on the broader picture and ultimate purpose of action rather than concrete speech focusing on details and the means of attaining action."

Interestingly, they found that men were significantly more likely to speak in the abstract than were women.

"One gender difference that has been pointed to anecdotally is the tendency of women to speak about specifics and men to speak about the bigger picture," state Joshi and her team. "Across a series of six studies, we [found] that men communicate more abstractly than women."

#5: Gender personality differences showed up at a young age

Psychologists commonly use five overarching traits to describe people's personalities: extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology applied this Big Five personality framework to girls and boys (between the ages of 9 and 13), with the goal of understanding which personality traits showed the most divergence, and the most continuity, during these formative years.

The researchers found two key differences between boys and girls, described below:

  1. Female early adolescents exhibited higher levels of conscientiousness than males. Females also showed a greater increase in conscientiousness from age 9 to 13 than males.
  2. The researchers found that while both boys and girls exhibited low levels of neuroticism at age 9, it was boys who showed more decline in the trait over time than girls.

#6: Romance comes more easily to extraverted males than extraverted females, according to one study

Male extraverts are similar to female extraverts in many ways. Both spend much of their time communicating with others and both have large social networks — online and in real life.

But there are some important differences. A recent study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that female extraverts showed less of a tendency to experience romantic happiness and were less likely to have a high degree of occupational commitment, compared to male extraverts.

This is not to say women extraverts can't have these two things; it just may come a bit more naturally to male extraverts.

Conclusion: Most psychologists agree that there are stable and predictable personality differences between the genders. How wide is the gap? One study found that knowing the personality profile of an individual, without knowing his or her gender, made it possible to correctly guess his or her gender about 85% of the time. Personality and other psychological qualities aren't a dead giveaway to someone’s gender, but they're not a bad start either.

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