A first-of-its-kind study to be published in the February issue
of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
has dealt a devastating blow to the notion that men and women are fundamentally different when it comes to how they think and act.
"Although gender differences on average are not under dispute, the idea of consistently and inflexibly gender-typed individuals is," Bobbi J. Carothers of Washington University in St. Louis and Harry T. Reis of the University of Rochester explained in their study. "That is, there are not two distinct genders, but instead there are linear gradations of variables associated with sex, such as masculinity or intimacy, all of which are continuous."
Analyzing 122 different characteristics from 13,301 individuals in 13 studies, the researchers concluded that differences between men and women were best seen as dimensional rather than categorical. In other words, the differences between men and women should be viewed as a matter of degree rather than a sign of consistent differences between two distinct groups.
Numerous studies have examined gender differences between men and women. Carothers and Reis were able to find a whopping 3,370 articles on the topic in 2011 alone. The vast majority of the research examined the average differences between men and women. The research can easily be misinterpreted as finding that "Men are better at X" or "Women are worst at Y" - ignoring the fact that the studies are comparing averages and contain variance.
"The world presents us with a huge amount of information, so we often take shortcuts to help process it all (this is known as the 'cognitive miser')," Carothers explained to Raw Story in an email. "One of those shortcuts is a tendency to categorize things - it's easier to think of 2 things (men are one way and women are another) than it is to think of all of the nuances of overlapping distributions, particularly if they're not brought to our attention when we hear about an average difference."
Many researchers, particularly those who were "evolutionarily oriented," appeared to "favor a more categorical interpretation of gender differences," Carothers and Reis wrote. They speculated this was because no research had actually addressed the specific question of whether gender differences were categorical or dimensional.
If men and women were psychologically distinct from one another, then their scores on psychological measures should form large clusters at either end of a spectrum with little overlap between the two groups.
This is the case for physical characteristics such as height, shoulder breadth, arm circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. Men tend to be tall, have broad shoulders, large arm circumference, and a small waist-to-hip ratio, while the inverse is true for women. A man is extremely unlikely to be taller than a woman, yet have narrower shoulders, for instance.
Yet the same could not be said for the myriad of psychological characteristics examined by the two researchers, including fear of success, sexual attitudes, mate selection criteria, sexual behaviors, empathy, and personality. A man could be aggressive, but verbally skilled and poor at math, for example, combining stereotypical masculine and feminine traits.
"It's not enough that men, on average, score higher than women on a scale of masculinity," Carothers told Raw Story. "Nearly all of the men would have to score higher than nearly all of the women on nearly every item of the scale. We did not see that level of consistency with the psychological variables we had."