Gender Differences in the Senses
Do men and women live in different sensory worlds?
Posted Aug 06, 2020
As gender becomes increasingly less important in work life, leisure activity, and domestic responsibilities, psychologists grapple with the implications of real gender differences in how the brain receives and interprets information.
Men are better at distinguishing objects that are moving in the distance, an aptitude that has clear relevance to tracking game animals in the distance.
Women have better visual memory for the location of an object in an array. This is relevant to foraging tasks such as harvesting the ripe fruits on a tree. These gender differences reflect varied numbers of different types of retinal cells (magnocellular versus parvocellular).
Women are also more attuned to colors and have a richer vocabulary of color words. They are more apt to use refined terms, such as ivory, azure, and mauve, that are less common in men's vocabulary. Women are more accurate in matching color strips to a color chart. They have somewhat different color preferences and find hues in the yellow area of the spectrum more attractive than men do.
Much has been made of the fact that women are more sensitive to sounds than men are but there are minimal differences in auditory sensitivity among young people.
The real difference is that women are more sensitive to loud noises than men are with men tolerating sounds some eight decibels louder than women. This has practical implications because women avoid taking jobs where the noise level is high, as is true of many jobs in mining and extraction. Women also seem more sensitive to the sound of a crying infant at night, which suggests one possible beneficial effect for offspring.
Because men are more exposed to occupational noise, they are more vulnerable to industrial deafness. For that reason, women often seem to hear better than their husbands.
Research also finds that women's brains process auditory signals more rapidly than men's do based on the recording of the brain's evoked potentials. This means they can be faster to respond in a conversation.
Smell and Chemical Senses
There is a widespread view that women have a more sensitive olfactory system than men do but the gender difference in olfactory sensitivity favoring females is quite small. Apparently, women are more upset by foul odors so that they are more likely to express their unease.
Despite a stronger distaste for unpleasant odors, women are not better at detecting scents whether bad or good. There is also no reliable gender difference in the sense of taste.
Even if there is no difference in the chemical senses in general, one intriguing gender difference cropped up in the study of mate selection.
Physically attractive men who have symmetrical body builds emit an odor that is more attractive to women (1). There is no analogous finding for mate selection by men. This phenomenon offers a functional clue as to why women might be more attentive to odors.
In the children's story of The Princess and the Pea, future royal prospects are tested out by sleeping on a mattress with a pea underneath. Those who get a good night's sleep fail their audition.
The implication is that women, and specifically royal females, are more highly sensitive to, touch than others.
In reality, there are no obvious differences in sensitivity to touch, as measured by the ability to detect fine hairs touched to the skin. Similarly, there is no gender difference in sensitivity to temperature shifts.
Despite the lack of sensory differences in tactile senses, women have greater manual dexterity scores in occupational tests. For that reason, they were preferentially hired in semiconductor plants in the days when chips were etched by hand.
Do These Differences Make a Difference?
While some gender differences in sensory systems are real, they are generally quite small. This has not prevented unscrupulous book authors from claiming that fathers are perceived as shouting by their daughters during normal conversations, or that boys are disengaged from classes because female teachers speak too softly.
There are some genuine differences but we should not jump to the conclusion that men and women inhabit discontinuous sensory worlds. Even small differences may have real practical consequences.
For example, women have advantages in color sensitivity and spatial memory that make them efficient gatherers whereas male visual systems appear to have been selected for tracking moving targets in the distance. These sensory differences are complemented by varied motor skills in fine manual dexterity compared to throwing an object to hit a target.
Small as they undoubtedly are, such gender differences inevitably affect occupational choices. This is generally not an argument that men, or women, are not capable of doing some job well but rather that our responses to sensory experiences can differ.
Many jobs are unpleasant and women react more strongly to loud noises and unpleasant odors. This helps explain why there are so few female coal miners and trash collectors but it is certainly not the only reason given that such occupations are often hostile to women.
1 Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (2008). The evolutionary biology of human female sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.