When Greta and I were married, we had to go through a series of interviews with the pastor. For the most part, these were benign, but there was a bit of a moment of tension when he asked these questions:
Pastor: Who’s more intelligent?
Greta and Dave: We’re the same. [So far, so good]
Pastor: Who’s more emotional?
Dave: She is. [Oops!]
The pastor and I chuckled, but Greta gave me a rather icy stare. Was I just confirming the “women are more emotional” stereotype, or was I making a real observation about her behavior? Perhaps more importantly, was I dooming our relationship to failure, regardless of the accuracy of my statement?
There is some research suggesting that women are less able to control their emotions than men (negative emotions in particular), and that women are more likely to have emotional disorders. So maybe I was on to something (on the other hand, I probably could have come up with a more diplomatic way to say it!).
If women really aren’t as good as men at controlling negative emotions, then you might expect to see some evidence of that in their brain activity. BPS Research Digest highlights a recent study that attempts to locate the brain activity corresponding to gender differences in emotional control:
Habel and colleagues scanned the brains of 19 women and 21 men while they performed a simple verbal memory task. On some trials the participants were also exposed to the smell of rotting yeast, thus triggering the negative emotion of disgust.
The smell impaired the participants’ performance, but to the researchers’ surprise, the women were no more affected by the horrible smell than the men, ostensibly contradicting the notion that women are less able to control negative emotion. However, the researchers pointed out this didn’t mean their brain imaging findings wouldn’t reveal differences in the way the male and female participants processed emotions and exerted cognitive control during the memory task.
Indeed, key gender differences were found. Women showed greater brain activation to the smell on its own, and to the memory task on its own. And, crucially, when they performed the memory task while exposed to the smell, they didn’t show any activation indicative of an interaction – it was as if the smell and memory task were processed in parallel.
So women’s brains were more activated by the disgusting smell, but they were no more impaired by it than men when performing the memory task. It seems to me that this study shows that women are better parallel processors than men, since they performed equally well on the task while facing what to them was a more significant distraction.
Why doesn’t the study seem to support the emotional control research? Perhaps the negative stimulus wasn’t strong enough. Or perhaps disgust isn’t as difficult for women to control as some other negative emotions. Any other thoughts from CogDaily readers?