Thursday, July 10, 2008

Are Men Verbally and Emotionally Inferior to Women?

Rhode Island psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, M.D. argues that men are at a relative disadvantage in relationships (Secrets of Married Men), both emotionally and verbally. This Psychology Today article is from 2004, but it just turned up in a recent blog post:
Haltzman argues that married men are different and need a voice because they are at a distinct disadvantage in relationships, verbally and emotionally.

The average woman uses 7,000 words a day and five tones of speech, he points out. The average man uses 2,000 words and three tones. "Men are talk-impaired, relatively speaking," he says.

Men are also impaired at experiencing emotion. They need help figuring out what to do. Some things are not intuitive. Talking about feelings, for example, increases men's stress levels.

Sometimes marriage is flawless. But most often it is not. Men who stay married have somehow learned techniques to preserve their relationships. He notes that "most men have learned these techniques on their own and don't do it in obvious ways."

Haltzman contends that marriage is as much a health issue as a quality of life issue issue. Married men make more money, have more peace of mind, and have more and better sex. Marriage also lowers men's health risk, while divorce raises the risk of death by 200 percent for men.

So Haltzman is busy researching ways to help understand the relationship patterns of husbands and wives. He has set up an internet community for married men to share their experiences and wisdom about marriage. It's called And it's terrific.

Yeah, I'm not buying this. I call bullshit.

Writing over at Slate, Amanda Schaffer recently debunked these very myths in a series of articles called The Sex Difference Evangelists. This is from the second installment, Pick a Little, Talk a Little:
Who hasn't heard that women are naturally more verbal than men—better at expressing themselves, better at reading and writing, chattier? These clich├ęs crop up in various forms. In her book, for instance, Pinker emphasizes that girls speak earlier, outperform boys on various measures of verbal skill when they're young, and are less likely to be dyslexic. She notes that women have an advantage in verbal fluency. And in an interview, she told me that "huge differences in literacy" exist between college-age men and women. Meanwhile, Brizendine casts women as virtual talkaholics. The hardcover edition of her book asserts that "girls speak faster on average—250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males." It also claims that females use an average of 20,000 words per day compared to males' 7,000.

What is the scientific basis for these claims? Well-established literature suggests that girls tend to acquire language earlier than boys and are less likely to develop dyslexia (though the sex difference in dyslexia is less striking than some older research would suggest). But while adolescent girls may perform better on some tests of verbal ability, the gender gap is not large, according to meta-analyses assessed here. In the past couple of years, scores on the critical reading section of the SAT essentially show a dead heat for boys and girls: In 2007, they averaged 504 and 502, respectively. The new writing test on the SAT shows an advantage for girls, but it's small: In 2007, those male and female averages were 489 and 500. Sex differences on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests also appear to be small or close to zero, when all ages are taken into account. To some degree, differences in verbal ability in children or adolescents may reflect different paces of development that even out later on.

Some differences—for instance, on tests of verbal fluency—do appear in adults. (A typical verbal fluency test might ask people to list as many words as possible beginning, say, with the letter B.) But the differences between average men and women are small compared with the variation within each gender. For instance, if we take an average measure of verbal fluency for men, about 50 percent of men will score higher that that mark, and about 60 percent of women will. Which means that you'd do pretty badly if you tried to predict a person's gender from his or her verbal fluency score. What's more, these tests may have little to do with real-life communication. "When does any conversation call upon you to produce as many words as you can think of starting with B?" asks Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at Oxford and author of The Myth of Mars and Venus. People may assume that "verbal fluency" means that women are more articulate or can find the words to express themselves better, she says, but that leap has not been substantiated.

Meanwhile, Brizendine's claim that women talk faster than men is unfounded, as linguist Mark Liberman has pointed out. Brizendine told me she omitted the two-to-one speed ratio from her paperback edition because she discovered that no primary sources verified it. Similarly, her assertion that women utter more words a day than men is bunk. Thanks in part to Liberman's provocation, last year University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl conducted a new analysis of daily word budgets. He and his colleagues sampled speech from male and female college students, who wore recording devices that turned on every 12½ minutes throughout the day. The findings, published in Science, show that on average women use about 16,000 words per day. And so do men. (Brizendine says that this study convinced her to drop the 20,000-to-7,000-words-per-day claim. But her paperback still says that "on average girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys"—an assertion that is just as flimsy. Here's her explanation, and a critical response from the scientist she relies on.)

The evidence is equally lacking that men are emotionally crippled in comparison to women. This is from the third installment, Empathy Queens:

They write more about this in part four, Mars, Venus, Babies, and Hormones:

At the moment, research that includes a control group (and is therefore more rigorous) doesn't tell us much about empathy and gender. Pinker emphasizes two studies: One finds that subjects who received intranasal puffs of the hormone were more trusting of other players in an investment game; the other shows that those who got oxytocin were better able to discern emotions in photographs of faces. Crucially, though, both these studies were conducted in men, as Pinker acknowledges. So far, for the most part, women haven't been in the research pool, according to social psychologist Jennifer Bartz of Mount Sinai. This is starting to change, but the bottom line for now, she says, is that "we can't say oxytocin makes women more empathetic."

Finally, Brizendine and Pinker lean on neuroimaging studies, which compare male and female responses to stimuli like pictures of sad and happy faces or other imagery. But this kind of data is notoriously hard to interpret. Consider this meta-anlysis by psychologist Tor Wager, who looked at 65 functional MRI and PET studies of gender and emotion. Wager found some differences in the brain activity patterns of men and women in response, say, to films or pictures meant to elicit emotion. The differences were subtle, however, compared to the similarities.

And the kicker is that these studies don't tell us whether differences are innate. Brizendine moves seamlessly from references to fMRI studies to phrases like "distinct female and male brain operating systems." (She also jumps off the deep end with a claim about male and female mirror neurons.) Pinker suggests that fMRI studies can show how women's "neural hardware" gives them an edge in discerning emotion. But our brains change in response to how we use them—what we think, see, feel, and practice doing over a lifetime. This is the plasticity of the brain, demonstrated most colorfully in this famous study of London cabbies. With its potential connection to a person's response to the culture he or she lives in, plasticity could explain much—or potentially all—of the difference between brain scans of men and women responding to emotional stimuli. Pinker knows this and says she does not suggest otherwise. "You can't look at a brain scan and say therefore we know the cause," she told me. But because she and Brizendine largely devote their books to excavating innate difference, they should write that caveat in red.

The upshot is that much of what men have argued for in terms of their own verbal and emotional ineptitude -- and that women have complained about in recent decades -- is more a matter of social and cultural conditioning than it in any innate deficiency on the part of males.

Men can be just as verbally complex and emotionally intelligent as women.

It does a great disservice to the mental health profession and to men in general when a psychiatrist such as Scott Haltzman argues that men are inferior in these realms -- and it was irresponsible of Psychology Today to publish such rubbish.


Lynn Oliver said...

I see boys and girls are equal at first but treated very different as early as one year of age through adulthood. The more aggressive treatment given boys to make them tough (from first year) creates higher average stress, more muscle tension, and more activity for stress relief. At one year, again to make them tough, they are not given kind, stable, verbal interaction and other mental, emotional, social verbal supports for fear of coddling. This combines to create more distrust and distance from others including adults along with much lag in many communication skills necessary to grow up well in the information age. We must change the way we treat our boys from as early as one year of age, or society will pay a heavy price.

Lynn Oliver said...

Oh, you might add, the more protected and supported expressions by Female children create much more range of open displays of feelings, needs, emotional displays etc. This is then modeled by other Female children and adults that creates a much wider range of voice and tone.
Since the Male child has been raised with much different treatment, this creates much more distrust, lower vocabulary, much less freedom of words, tones, and inflection.