In a special Time edition, The Science of Emotions, Emily Barone wrote an article, “She Feels, He Feels.” The age old question comes up: Are women more emotional than men? She argues that there may be some truth to this long held belief in part because of hormonal differences between the sexes. We cannot underestimate the power of nature. How much of our behavior is hard wired from evolution and DNA hard wired? The sexes all have feelings, but they may act on them differently due to nature and nurture. You’ve heard the sayings “Big boys don’t cry” and “Take it like a man.” Boys get the message that showing feelings is a sign of weakness and contradicts the masculine code. Boys are encouraged to keep feelings in check, and women are rewarded for expressing their feelings.
William Ickes, one of the primary researchers on empathy, makes the argument that men have less motivation to appear sensitive, and possibly more to be machismo. So when we hear women complain that men are insensitive, it may have more to do with the image the guys are portraying than with their actual ability to be empathetic.
Then there is the level of self-disclosure among men and women. Both men and women say they’d rather talk to a woman about personal things, and the main reason appears to be a shared perception that women are more empathic listeners. In short, the level of disclosure of intimate and personal details is highest among women, and women are the primary recipients of these messages from both men and women.
Almost any level of personal talk is nonexistent among men. Sure, there are the “safe” topics, such as frustration at work, disappointment in the final score of a baseball game, or a poor financial investment. But it’s not the kind of intimate detail shared among women.
During professional seminars, we’ve seen women who are complete strangers make deep confessions to each other in group exercises. It just seems that part of a woman’s job description is to take care of people and relationships, both at home and at work. This starts the circle: empathetic listening leads to the perception that women have a receptive ear, which attracts more people to talk to women than men.
One of the most compelling arguments that sex differences are learned comes from anthropologists. In exploring the cultural landscape, anthropologists have discovered variations in the definition of masculinity and femininity. Margaret Mead was one of the first to argue that sex differences were not simply biological, but rather were learned, when she said in her classic book Sex and Temperament, “I have suggested that certain human traits have been socially specialized as the appropriate attitudes and behavior of only one sex, while the other human traits have been specialized for the opposite sex.”
Mead compared other cultures to that of the United States. Sex and Temperament examines three cultures in New Guinea that define masculinity and femininity differently. The first two presented more similarities between men and women. Women and men were not “opposite” sexes. For example, the Arapesh culture was gentle, passive, and emotionally warm. Men and women shared child rearing and were perceived as equals. In contrast, the third culture, the Mundugamor, was a tribe of headhunters and cannibals. Both men and women were aggressive and violent. Women demonstrated little maternal behaviors, had little regard for pregnancy and nursing, and were always eager to return to war. In short, these tribes saw gender differences as nonexistent.
Mead’s work stirs up debate, sparking additional questions about the origins of gender behaviors. Are they purely influenced by the environment, or could they be hard-wired? The answer is a combination of both. No one can definitively prove whether nature or nurture has more influence. That leads us to some of the more intriguing recent research on this tug-of-war.
We have reason to suspect that evolution has had a strong hand in producing gender differences. In 1860, when told of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester, England, exclaimed: “Descended from monkeys? My dear, let us hope it isn’t true! But if it is true, let us hope that it doesn’t become widely known!”
Today thousands of scientists can present a multitude of examples of how human behavior echoes that of other animals. Don’t underestimate the power of evolution. Go to the zoo and take a look at the animals. Remind you of some of the people you know? Ethnologists, sociobiologists, behavioral ecologists, and geneticists are just a few of the scientists who grapple with the unanswered questions involved with evolution and gender differences, but one thing seems certain: you can’t ignore the influence of evolution.