The Frontal Cortex

Men Vs. Women

Here’s another common question I get at my book talks:

“Is there a difference between the male and female brain when it comes to decision-making? Are women really more intuitive? Which sex is the better decider?”

While there are certainly relevant differences between the male and female brain – that wash of sex hormones in the womb can have significant effects – I think it’s important to begin by emphasizing the profound irrelevance of gender in most experimental studies of decision-making.

Let’s begin with that perdurable cliche about female intuition. My own hunch is that women got associated with intuition, emotionality and all those other “irrational” aspects of cognition simply because that was a way of demeaning the female brain. While neuroscientists now respect the processing powers of our emotions – they reflect all that computation taking place in the unconscious – this wasn’t always the case. To say someone trusted their feelings was another way of saying they lacked the fortitude and intelligence to be rational. Here’s Aristotle:

The female is softer in disposition, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive and more attentive to the nurture of the young…The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete.

Kant elaborated on the “softness” of the female mind and associated abstract thought with men; women, in contrast, were good at dealing with the concrete and mundane. Stanley Hall, the influential American psychologist, wasn’t much better (as quoted here):

She works by intuition and feeling; fear, anger, pity, love and most of the emotions have a wider range and greater intensity. If she abandons her natural naivete and takes up the burden of guiding and accounting for her life by consciousness, she is likely to lost more than she gains, according to the old saw that she who deliberates is lost.

Needless to say, Aristotle, Kant and Hall didn’t cite evidence or experiments for the frailties of the female mind – they just assumed it as given. But, as I noted above, there is very little evidence that women are more “intuitive,” whatever that means. In fact, several studies that directly compared the decision-making styles of men and women have found the exact opposite. Consider this 2001 study, recently summarized by Michael Lewis:

Back in 2001, MIT’s Quarterly Journal of Economics published an intriguing paper called “Boys Will Be Boys: Gender, Overconfidence, and Common Stock Investment.” The authors, Brad Barber and Terrance Odean, gained access to the trading activity in over 35,000 households, and used it to compare the habits of men and women. What they found, in a nutshell, is that men not only trade more often than women but do so from a false faith in their own financial judgment. Single men traded less sensibly than married men, and married men traded less sensibly than single women: the less the female presence, the less rational the approach to trading in the markets.

Take that Aristotle.

Of course, most of these studies are behavioral. What can neuroscience teach us? One of the few decision-making studies that’s found a relevant difference between male and female brains comes from the work of Colin Camerer, at Cal-Tech, and Read Montague, at Baylor College of Medicine. The scientists play a simple economic exchange game called the trust game, and it goes like this: at the start of each of 10 rounds, an “investor” is given an imaginary stake of $20. They can keep it all, or “invest” some of it with a “trustee”. Any money that gets invested is tripled, and the trustee then has the option of returning some portion of that amount back to the investor. For example, if the investor keeps $10 and invests $10, then the trustee has $30 to divide ($10 x 3). However, if the trustee decides to keep all the money there is nothing the investor can do about it. Since the trust game is typically played for 10 rounds, both players have a selfish incentive to trust each other.

While this simple game was being played, Camerer and Montague imaged the brains of the two players, allowing the scientists to detect the neural roots of fidelity and betrayal. What does this have to do with the gendered brain? Well, men and women tend to play the trust game pretty differently. Here’s Camerer:

We found a surprising effect of gender. When men decide how much to trust or repay, an area called the “medial cingulate sulcus” is active. This is an area used to process potential reward, and calculate numbers. The male brains are just “doing the math” and turn off after they have made a decision. The female brains are quite different. After women have decided how much to repay, but before they know how their partner reacted to their decision, areas of the brain active in processing potential reward (ventromedial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum) and in regulating worry and error-detection (caudate nucleus) are active. The women are worrying, and thinking about the reward consequences, after they have decided how much to repay.

My own guess is that future work on gender differences will find plenty of additional ways to distinguish the male and female brain. But these differences won’t be reducible to trite, general truisms, such as “women are more intuitive” or “men are better at abstract thought”. Instead, this research will focus on specific dispositions, such as the work by Camerer and Montague, which suggests that women tend to be a little more interested in parsing social interactions. When it comes to the brain, cliches are never true.

Comments

  1. #1 samantha
    April 16, 2009

    Hi…Jonah
    do you have ym???i need this topic for my thesis….gender biased….please.thanks before

  2. #2 ker
    April 10, 2010

    where did u find the study on gender and financial decisions?

  3. #3 David
    April 29, 2010

    Who cares? Men built everything so what do we care about the female brain? It could be superior in every way,still produced nothing. Of course you can always fall back on the great oppression theory. The most important difference is that men do things and women whine about it as if it’s their goddamn right. We didn’t need them before and we don’t need them now or ever. I suggest you study the similarities between bird brains and those of women. Birdbrained sums it up nicely. Men are intuitive,visionary and spiritual. Woman are pragmatic, grasping and shortsighted and many other things-none complimentary. Haven’t you got anything useful to do?

  4. #4 Jada
    May 1, 2010

    @ David: how can u even say that men never needed and never will need women? You’re obviously not religious, God created humans (both female n male) to compliment each other. And if you rather look at it from a scientific point, men usually suffer from loneliness and wind up shelling out money for a womans companionship wheather its through the internet or in real life. Men usually cannot ignore their sexual needs and even though women do have a tendency to be emotional and nag(whine) about different subjects, a lot of times it is done so to help the man understand other aspects of certain dealings. Sure sometimes women may nag just for the hell of it…so do men. ANd how can you say women are not spiritual or cannot vision things or abstract ideas?? Are you serious? Maybe you need to stop talking to low budget air heads and start meeting women who know who they are, know what they want out of life, and actually are half way through getting what they want.

  5. #5 Lilly Tilly
    May 14, 2010

    David, you are a moron. Add 2 + 2 babe. Men also DESTROYED everything. MEN also engage in rampant non stop wars. MEn also destroyed the planet. Men allow children to starve to death so they can spend all the money on militia and rockets to the moon… so they can destroy that too.

    In an article about brains, you sure showed yours isnt working well.

  6. #6 jennifer
    September 21, 2010

    David, I feel sorry for you it seems like some mean ole woman done hurt your lil feelings and now your mad poor baby and I bet where your from men marry there sister so did sis make ya mad

  7. #7 Anonymous
    September 28, 2010

    Everyone stop it. Men and women were created to be together. Neither can live with out the other. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle. Every piece is necessary to get the big picture, so I see men and women as equal and as having a mutual need for each other. I applaud Jada; at least I’m not the only person not blind here.

  8. #8 Anonymous Again
    September 28, 2010

    On another note, Jonah mentions men being absstract thinkers, while women are good at dealing with concrete situations. This promotes my jigsaw simile even further.

  9. #9 Guess What Its Anonymous
    September 28, 2010

    abstract*

  10. #10 John Glover
    November 21, 2010

    David, im 100% agree with you on that.. i think women should have more respect to Males for building everything out there.
    Man are risking their life in iraq or another war areas..
    for protecting you’re asses.
    Theres some short and comprehensive quotes:
    “A woman may be able to change the world, but she will never be able to change a man.” Amy Snowden
    “Woman was God’s second mistake.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
    I say, if a woman wants to be respected, she should finally understand whos the creator and the boss, and respect man first!

  11. #11 Danny
    February 5, 2011

    David and John you are both idiots (and i am a guy) also military and just an FYI for your little brain…. theres a lot of girls in Iraq aswell as guys. So before you use that reference stop a minute and think. Second if women are so inferior to men as you are putting it go bitch slap your mother for giving birth to a complete sexist moron who probably won’t get a job outside of being a construction worker because they can’t stand having a women working next to them. Its idiots like you guys that are causing this world to spiral downward. In my honest opinion go jump off a building and save the world your stupidity.

  12. #12 carol
    April 25, 2011

    “Second if women are so inferior to men as you are putting it go bitch slap your mother for giving birth to a complete sexist moron”

    Or give their asshole fathers a kick in the balls for setting such a shitty sexist example for their sons to follow.

  13. #13 Jesse
    April 28, 2011

    Here’s a video that determines who’s better functionally. Enjoy.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1fhNPtURsY&feature=watch_response

  14. #14 Anonymous
    July 6, 2011

    Everyone came out of a vagina. Get over it. Women created the men who created things.

  15. #15 Amelia
    July 23, 2011

    Thank you so much Danny! You are absolutley right and I agree with you 100% on this! David and John should probably shack up together if they both hate women so much. Try making a baby or cleaning your house, I guarentee it will not work withough a woman. And also Danny, thanks for your service. I support the military and I’m a soon-to-be military wife and proud.

  16. #16 Sandra Hoxie
    August 1, 2011

    Hm, Now i am comfortable with this but nevertheless not totally convinced, so i’m about to research even more.

  17. #17 gail
    August 17, 2011

    hmmm~

    so sad for david…

    men are simply driven by lust…they
    create for the sake of mating…

    it’s that simple…

    i love males … love to get to know
    them…love knowing the differences
    between women and men …

    to david…i challenge you to forgive
    women…and found out what is
    bothering you…sad for you…

    hope you mature and grow
    up and find wondrous love

    cheers~

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  25. #25 Theresa
    December 2, 2011

    WOW, wait Woman worked on ship’s building Bomb’s!and have you ever heard of ROSY the riviter?? Woman fight in war’s and if there were no women Men would never have been born!!
    Woman can feed Babie’s!! behind every good man is a women that clean’s cook’s and whatever else she has to do!!
    Woman invented the flour and water for patching hole’s in the wall to keep heat in and cold out, way back in the early 1900′s when there were threat’s of Black Lung desaese from crop dust!!! I could go on and on!!!