Battle of the sexes: Who's better at suppressing emotional response?

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?


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Three thoughts:

1. The parallel processing power of women would appear to be backed up by the remarkable ability of women to manage muliple distractions in the home. (at least this is true in my home)

2. I was surprised by their use of rotting yeast as a stimulus. THe idea of using an aversive smell to promote a negative emotion does not strike me as the most potent method. One does not usually equate smells with negative emotions (other than revulsion, of course) I expected the researchers to be attempting to arouse emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration and the like. I'm not sure they found the answer to their question based on their choice of stimulus.

3.Even so, the increased brain activity in the women associated with the smell may yet support the hypothesis. At times of leisure, when there is no need to parallel process activities, or perhaps at times of an overload of parallel processing the women may be inclined to then suffer in their performance.

Though, looking at the title of your post again, Dave, one might say that women are better at "suppressing the emotional response", as they might have the stronger brain activity (emotional?) response, yet continue to function as normal.

I have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that leads me to believe that on average women have a more sensitive sense of smell than do men.... I'd think about that before thinking about how this correlates with emotional response.

You folks are the psychologists, so you may know this, but I believe I have heard psychological evidence before that women, on average, tend to be better at parallel tasking, whereas men are better, on average, at over-hyper-focusing on one thing. (I say "on average" to make it clear that of course any given individual may be towards one end or the other end of this scale.) Did I hear this right? is there anything to this?


I wonder how the women and men were chosen for this observation. Strangely enough, people are individuals. Depending on various factors, brain functioning is slightly different from person to person. I don't believe a study as shown here would be a good indicator of what gender is more emotional.

By joltvolta (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

Gender differences in parallel processing capability is something that my wife and I have definitely noticed. For example, when she's doing homework, she prefers to have the TV on, so that she doesn't get terribly bored. She pays no less attention to the TV when she's doing her homework than when she's not; she is still able to follow and enjoy the show and constantly make progress on her homework. However, if the TV is on while I try to do homework (or anything else for that matter), I invariably end up paying attention only to the TV.

I'm much faster at processing single tasks, such as reading or answering a specific question (which makes me able to complete most tests I'm given in less than half the allotted time), but she's much better at processing many things at once, which makes her more aware of what others are thinking, improves her memory (apparently), and allows her to more thoroughly consider the possible outcomes of a particular action.

As per emotional control, I don't think that gender per se has any effect on a person's ability to deal with a particular emotion, but I do believe that different genders may have different emotional reactions to similar stimuli.

By Andy Hight (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

These idiots have used stink as a proxy for an emotional driver. They might as well have used bad art or chintzy decor.

Emotions ... grrr ... do I have to explain!!!!!

Well, I think you illustrate why people shy away from claims that "women are more X than men". Even if that were the case, it would say little about you and Greta in particular, wouldn't it?

Other than that, it seems like a strong smell wouldn't really be an emotion, would it? More like a distraction.

In defense of the study (which I haven't read), I suspect that the researchers took care to ensure that the bad smell did indeed invoke the intended emotion (disgust). I doubt the research would have been published otherwise. But these are all great comments.

Bad smell as a stimuli? Hopefully these are not the kind of studies that are used to yield conclusions about gender differences. I think the question omits the important part - what kind of emotional response? Men and women may both be equally good at suppressing emotional response in general (if there is such a thing), they just differ in their ability to suppress specific emotional response to specific stimuli. A lot of crime (read: men) comes from difficulty to control own emotions - such as raging anger. I think the "women are more emotional" stereotype is there because world around us has more situations which evoke emotional response in women - e.g. movies, theater.

Add me to the group who wonders at the use of a bad smell for the test. While a good start, I think the conclusion was skewed by the variables being tested. I've observed that men often react more strongly in disgust than women - they're more grossed out, they loudly object when a woman is "nasty", etc. (And how many women are willing to change dirty diapers compared to men?) But the stereotype of women being more emotional probably refers more to internalized emotions - insecurity, fear, sadness, worry, etc. More studies should be done, maybe one where the subjects are told they are ugly.

I also have to wonder, is this the sort of test where the researchers make all sorts of unjustified assumptions about "genetic/biological predispositions" while ignoring any role that socialisation might have?

Given that there is a marked gender difference in how people are expected to deal with emotions, to what extent does this override any biological predispositions towards anything? It's not as if expectation, parental feedback, and peer pressure have nothing to do with how people cope with emotional expression.

It would be interesting, for example, to do the same kind of study in Korea, where men are allowed to express whatever they feel like expressing, but women are supposed to be quiet and expressionless.

Anyway, I obviously buck the "trend", if you can name a stereotype a trend. I can't stand distractions when I'm trying to do something, studying or programming or reading for fun -- I hyperfocus, and I prefer to do it in a quiet environment. And when problems happen, as they inevitably do, my husband is the one who goes with shouting and waving his arms around, while I prefer to work through an analysis of the problem and the pros and cons of various possible solutions. And last I checked, I was definitely female. (I also read maps and navigate better than most men I know, so there.)

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

The researchers were suprised? Meaning they went into the study with the likely results in mind? That doesn't sound too scientific.

I'm with luna-the-cat here. While it's true that the plural of anecdote is not data, I'm less emotionally expressive - and a better map reader - than most men I know (and I'm a girl). Although they may not have cast it explicitly as genetic, the framing that 'women are not as good at controlling...' does imply something inherent and unlearned (and the rather odd assumption that the reason emotions are expressed is that they can't be controlled...who knows how we evolved emotions, but I find it difficult to accept that they are around solely to be suppressed). How about saying that a majority of American women seem to have learned which emotions are appropriate to express in given situations? And, as it turns out, the majority of American men probably have too. Not profound, but likely more true.

"Meaning they went into the study with the likely results in mind? That doesn't sound too scientific. " June! Revisit your scientific method! A falsifiable hypothesis is both the heart of scientific research, and a 'likely result in mind.' Not that I'm particularly defending the study...but at least, unlike many others, they did have a hypothesis....

The researchers were suprised? Meaning they went into the study with the likely results in mind? That doesn't sound too scientific.

Actually, since other research had suggested that women are less able to suppress negative emotions, they would have been neglectful not to take this into account when planning the study. Also, realize that I'm reporting BPR Research Digest's summary of the study, not the actual study results. The researchers themselves may have been more careful with word choice.

While this is kind of interesting, I agree that odors are not equivalent to emotions. Revulsion to a smell seems more like a core survival reaction, while so many fascinating human emotions are defined by social context. Disgust triggered by a person's behavior is qualitatively, not just quantitatively different from disgust triggered by a smell.

By Spaulding (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

count me in with those who find the odorant a strange stimulus -- there's plenty of precedent for subliminal flashes of, say, angry faces or upsetting scenes (war, car crashes, etc.) which could have been used instead, unless their scanner set-up didn't allow for anything except free-floating (sound and smell) stimuli . . .

This test doesn't seem to say anything about controlling emotional responses. All it does is show that men and women perform equally well when presented with the distraction of a strong smell.

It is possible that stressing other senses would show that women and men are better at focusing during different sensory overloads.

I think the emotional control discussed in this blog means outwardly emotional or more likely to become emotional over an issue or stimulus.

I think this test is misplaced in this blog.

I should also point out that using the word "control" seems a bit patronizing. Say the hypothesis that women express their emotions more than men is true. Then why would you call that a lack of control? It could simply be a different optimal strategy, and may take just as much effort on the part of the woman as on the man. Then again, it may not, but "control" is certainly not implied by voicing/not voicing if the emotion is equally felt.

Second, it seems like there is little accounting for the different social environments in which this could take place. I'm willing to bet reaction to emotions is quite different in places like China, Korea or Indonesia, on the one hand, and the US on the other. And at the same time, those three places are quite different.

Upon reading the abstract for the study, my impression is that it suggests men suppress emotional states through intellectualization; women don't suppress emotions, but instead, their emotional reaction is strong enough that it drew attention away from the primary task.

It seems to me (and again, just from reading the abstract) that the main findings were that: (1) both males and females did not perform well on the memory test due to the smell; and (2)there were different reasons for this as indicated by differences in their brain responses--men showed greater activation of cognitive areas; women showed greater activation of emotion areas. To me, this suggests that males' worsened memory performance was due to the smell causing an intellectual distraction (e.g., instead of focusing on memorizing the words, perhaps they were spending time intellectually convincing themselves that the smell wasn't so bad); whereas, female participants were not denying that the smell was bad, and instead their attention was so drawn to it, that some of their attention on the memory task was shifted towards the smell.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 30 Aug 2007 #permalink

My own speculation about parallel processing is that both sexes are equally proficient. Apparent differences arise because men discount their own abilities.

For instance, it seems to me that both men & women are equally proficient in the parallel processing task of "drive and talk simultaneously."

My theory is that men drive effortlessly, but have to think when expressing their thoughts. OTOH, women are less skilled at driving, but are able to express themselves effortlessly. So the equivalence arises from a difference.

I admit all of this is anecdotal & subjective, so am prepared for the howls of "chauvinist".

Well, at least nobody can say our paper did not bring up (emotional?) discussion! The second author (or "idiot" like some prefer to call us) is talking. First, we did not want to bring up or reinforce stereotypes. Of course, individual differences can be tremendous and much more striking than gender differences. Actually, before we published this gender study we published another study about "individual difference in neurobehavioral findings" (Habel et al., 2007). Unfortunately, it is not possible to discuss all aspects of a topic in one single article. But although there are a bunch of individual differences there are also common aspects. And as Rob stated, we only talk about the average. Although some men might be attracted by Oprah Winfrey, I could imaging that ON AVERAGE most of her viewers are female. And although not all men might be interested in the demolition of cars by monster trucks I would hypothesize that ON AVERAGE there a less women in the audience. Furthermore, as we stated in the concluding remarks of the article, of course, disgust is only ONE aspect of emotional experience. But it is one aspect that has not been investigated sufficiently so far.
Why for God's sake did they choose fermented yeast as a stimulus??? Well, we also used (more socially acceptable) visual emotion induction techniques before (but enough of article advertisement... ). However, there are several advantages of this emotion induction technique. First, there are tight anatomical connections between the primary olfactory system and "emotional areas" like the limbic system. And although smelling and emotion is not equivalent it's hardly separable (If the first breeze of rotten yeast strikes your nose your will know what I mean... ). Of course, (Thanks, Mr. Munger!) this fact was also affirmed by individual emotion ratings. Men and women did not differ in their ratings (about valence, intensity, disgust, anger, ...). You are still skeptical about the efficiency of this method??? Well, try yourself at home! And here comes the do-it-yourself formula for a successful disgust induction: take 20g of fresh commercially available yeast and dissolve it in 200ml of water. Keep it at a constant temperature of 30° Celsius/ 86° Fahrenheit for two weeks. If you do not own a water basin with thermostat you can place the mixture on your heating... whatever, be creative! After 2 weeks, take a deep breath and tell me about your emotions!
Of course, emotions are complex. But if you want to investigate their influences on brain activation you have to find a standardized method of emotion induction usable within the scanner. I thought about the proposed stimuli composed of pictures of chintzy décor. Not too bad. One great disadvantage of this method might be that some rather perverted participants of the study might like it while the ones with more gusto probably wouldn't. Some might close their eyes, some might think of their ex-girlfriend (who had had a similar bad taste)... . Odors are processed automatically and concerning the odor of fermented yeast the valence ratings were non-ambiguous. However, looking at IAPS pictures probably will induce some kind of emotion, too, although also vision is not the same as emotion.
YES, we went into the study with some possible results in mind. We are big fans of falsifiable hypotheses!!! Did we make "unjustified assumptions about 'genetic/ biological predispositions'"? Nope. We also did not make assumptions about socialization. However, I don't think this classical dualism between dispositional and environmental influences is necessary or useful. For example, gene expression is altered by environmental influences and cognitive therapy exerts effects on functional brain activation.
Actually, main assumptions we made about the found gender differences in brain activation were quite practical: "This further underscores the importance of considering gender as a major factor of neuroimaging findings". Some studies compare depressive men with healthy females ignoring the fact that different results might not only be due to the illness.
Of course, besides gender influences, investigating cultural influences would be extremely interesting within this context as might the influence of age. I also liked the discussion about the "intellectual distraction".
In short, thanks a lot for the interesting discussion!!!

By Katharina Pauly (not verified) on 31 Aug 2007 #permalink

The same scenario took place when my husband and I were in counseling, with much different results:

Counselor: Who's more intelligent?
Andrea: Me.
Jason: She is.
Counselor gives pause, then puts on polite smile.
Counselor: Who's more emotional?
Andrea: Jason is.
Counselor leans back in her chair: Okaaaay, then.

You know, long after the fact here, it struck me that there may indeed be a biologically-based gender difference -- in reaction to smell, specifically.

Something I've repeatedly noted in experience (no, anecdote != data, we should have a study for this -- I'll have to look it up in my nonexistant spare time) is that women tend to be overtly more sensitive to bad smells, controlling for factors like smoking, varying with hormone levels. This has a sound basis in evolutionary history -- when you are pregnant, some foods which are only mildly contaminated by bacteria and which would ordinarily cause you no more than a few bad moments, can actually be a serious threat to health and to the health of the fetus. This effect shows up long before the more overt effects of pregnancy such as morning sickness do, and smell sensitivity tends to be strongest in the stage of the hormone cycle just after ovulation and before the period begins. I am not an unqualified fan of evolutionary psychology, given how much and how badly I see it overused, but the link to smell sensitivity/fetal survival in pregnancy is actually a very strong one.

I find it plausible that this test was not measuring emotional response so much as it was measuring the gender difference of the simple physical degree of smell aversion. Try the test again with a visual cue for emotion, then let's talk.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 06 Sep 2007 #permalink

I vaguely recalled some research that smell acutally stimulates memory and did a quick google.

"The "Proust effect" - odour associated with experience and a smell can recall the memory; smell is better at this memory cue effect than other senses (Chu and Downes, 2000)"

also: Hirsch, AR and Johnston LH. Odors and Learning. J Neuro Orthop Med Surg 1996 17:119-126. -- Subjs completed Halsted-Reitan Test Battery 17% faster on subsequent trials when a floral odor was present.

I also recall some other research that women are better smellers, which may skew womens' emotional responses to smell, perhaps for the simple reason that it smells stronger or cues more bad memories to them.

Is it slightly possible that they chose the wrong stimulus for their sneaking suspicions?

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.

You've got to be kidding.

Let's look at men's actual behavior around the world and throughout history: anger, rage, violence, jealousy, rape, battery, war, torture, sulks, tantrums, dick-waving, misogyny, murder, tribalism, pathetic anxious masculinity, destructive "boys will be boys" "men cant help themselves" and so on and on and on.

And this is supposed to be men controlling themselves/ their "negative" emotions better than women ?

Seriously ?

And this is supposed to be men controlling themselves/ their "negative" emotions better than women ?

I'm referring to the laboratory research that motivated the study, not history of abuse/bad behavior by men. Often the behaviors you mention were (rightly or wrongly) sanctioned by society. But for what it's worth, this study didn't replicate the finding that women are less able to control emotions.

The article is about BRAIN ACTIVATION differences in men and women. The (cognitive) BEHAVIOR or the results of the emotion ratings, here, did not differ between the genders.
I absolutely agree: there are hormonal influences on olfactory abilities. However, changes and differences are rather subtle - for example noticeable when comparing perception thresholds. Looking at the sample of the cited article, men and women did neither differ concerning their performance during an olfactory discrimination task nor concerning the subjective ratings of the (very intensive) negative odor. The only differences found were based on AVERAGED blood oxygen levels in certain brain regions. Those areas were linked to emotion and cognitive functions respectively (not primarily to olfaction).
In summary, the article gives new insights in the interaction of emotion and cognition in healthy women and men. The rather same behavioral outcome was based on different brain activation networks. The article does not make any assumptions about male or female misdoings.
And that women are more prone to affective disorders is a fact/statistics. Again, we talk about the AVERAGE. It does not mean that men cannot get depressive or that most women are melancholic.
Perhaps it might help to read the article before discussing it... . :o) And hey, by the way, it was written by three women.

By Katharina Pauly (not verified) on 10 Sep 2007 #permalink