More than 20 years after John Gray set a new way of thinking about the sexes by declaring that men were from Mars and women were from Venus, a new study says men and women are not as psychologically different as we may think.
When it comes to empathy, sexual attitudes and behaviours, and personality traits like extroversion and openness, researchers found no statistical evidence to suggest men and women can be lumped into two distinct groups.
"On psychological variables, men and women aren't really different categories," says lead author Bobbi Carothers, a senior data analyst for the Center for Public Health System Science at Washington University. "There's a lot of overlaps, and the differences [between the sexes] aren't consistent enough for us to say they're categorically different."
Their findings suggest that many of the differences commonly attributed to men and women are, in fact, individual differences, rather than gender differences.
The study, to be published in the February issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved the statistical analysis of data collected from 13 previous studies, which looked at a wide range of attributes, from men and women's attitudes toward sex and their interest in math and sciences to their levels of empathy and fear of success.
The researchers discovered that while average differences between the sexes do exist (for instance, men, on average, are more aggressive and fantasize more often about sex, while women, on average, are more empathic and express greater fear of success), in most cases, the nature of those differences is dimensional. In other words, psychological indicators fall along a continuum for both genders, making them inaccurate measures for grouping people as male or female. Moreover, a man who is aggressive, for instance, is not necessarily more interested in math, while a woman who is empathic may excel in science.
"Just because you have one characteristic of the group doesn't necessarily mean you have other characteristics," says co-author Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
By contrast, the researchers noted that men and women are clearly distinct from one another when it comes to physical attributes, such as height, physical strength and waist-to-hip ratio. Reis suggests that the obvious biological and physical differences make it easy for people to assume men and women are also categorically different when it comes to psychological characteristics.
"It's easy to assume that the reason [this] person is aggressive is because he's a male [or] the reason that person is empathic is because she's a female," he says.
But he and Carothers warn that such assumptions can harm relationships, especially when people automatically blame their partner's gender during disputes. Compartmentalizing the sexes into a simplistic dichotomy can also hold people back from pursuing opportunities and from seeing others as individuals, they say.
"The major implication of our work is to really think of these things as individual characteristics and not gender characteristics, and I think that should open people up to much more flexibility in the kinds of jobs people are hired for and the opportunities kids have growing up," Reis says.