I’m sure most of us saw the emotional responses of a certain Associate Justice of the US supreme upon pleading innocent to allegations of sexual misconduct. Those allegations were brought on by the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was comparatively calm and collected when she testified at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
Watching Kavanaugh’s hearings, many women I speculated that if Kavanaugh had been a woman, she would have been castigated for having an emotional meltdown during what was basically a job interview. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that in the Western World, women are stereotyped as the more emotional sex. Oftentimes, in heterosexual relationships, women are labeled as more emotional and sensitive than their male partners, especially when it comes to arguments.
But is the perception of men as rational stoics and women as blubbering messes a fair one? Is there scientific evidence showing men and women are emotionally different, and does it place women on the higher end of the emotional scale? Or are men just better at hiding their emotions because society makes it taboo for little boys and men to cry? Let’s turn to science for the answers.
What is emotion?
The Oxford English dictionary defines emotion as “A strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” The definition also includes “Instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.”
How is emotion measured?
Some researchers contend that emotions are separate states (happiness, sadness, etc.) which can be correlated to specific behavioural, physiological and experiential states. However, generally researchers find it quite difficult to associate a person’s emotional response as being discrete or separate states. The most common way for monitoring non-discete emotional responses are:
- Valence: pleasure (happy) displeasure (sad)
- Arousal (activation): quiet surprised
- Approach-avoidance: motivated or excited to approach the stimuli tendency to avoid stimuli (you become anxious)
Quantitative measures of emotions include the:
- Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) – used as a measure of emotional intelligence and social competency.
- Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) – used as a measure of empathy (to gauge someone else’s feelings by putting yourself in their shoes).
- Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (LEAS) – a scale which assigns a score as to how well a person is aware of his or her emotions.
Meta-analyses show that women oftentimes score higher (in small to moderate numbers) than men in the above tests/measures but these results are not always reproducible and are not usually based on physiological responses, but rather on self-reports.
What does science say?
Emotional perception – are women better at detecting emotions than men?
One study showed that women were better at decoding facial expressions compared to men. However, this finding was contradicted by another study, where computer generated facial expressions with different emotional states (sad, angry, happy, and fearful) were shown to men and women asked to recognise the emotion they see. There was no difference in the discrimination of the facial expressions between the sexes. Yet another study, this time utilising brain imaging after a stimulus is introduced, showed that females were quicker to detect threats when shown images of a person in a potentially dangerous situation compared to a safe one. Further, it is shown that whether or not there is a difference in emotional perception between the sexes, there is a difference in the way neural circuitry in men and women are used to process emotions (different regions of the brain are recruited by men and women).
Emotional stimulus – are women more reactive to emotional stimuli than men?
A brain imaging study showed that women exhibit greater reactivity to unpleasant and negative stimuli than men. In this particular study, subjects were given a task along with unpleasant words while regions of the brain were monitored for activity. However, another study contradicts that finding, and instead found that men were more reactive to negative stimulus – in this case, the negative stimuli were pictures showing attacks by humans or animals. Interestingly, men also show more reactivity to more pleasant stimulus, particularly that of a sexual nature. Surprise, surprise! Multiple studies support this.
Who is better at emotional control/regulation?
There is some evidence to show that the strategies employed by men and women for emotional control, or ways of coping with emotional situations, specifically with negative ones, are different. One study reports, “Males preferred problem-focused coping strategies, planned and rational actions, positive thinking, personal growth and humour, day-dreaming and fantasies. Women preferred emotion-focused coping solutions, self-blame, expression of emotions/seeking of social support, and wishful thinking/emotionality.” Although differences are reported in the way men and women cope with negative emotions, overall there was no conclusive relationship between coping and symptoms exhibited by either sex. Another study using brain imaging showed that in terms of behaviour, men and women are the same at “down regulating” negative emotions; however, they use different brain circuitry to do so.
Science shows us that there can be differences in how men and women process emotions. Especially, in the way men and women cope with emotions, particularly the strategies they use to combat negative emotions. But overall, there is varied and oftentimes inconclusive evidence on whether men or women are more emotional. Today, we as a society also realize the very idea of a Gender Binary is an outmoded social construction.
So, in your daily life, it might be a wise idea to gauge a person’s individual emotional needs. Try getting to know a person, rather than pre-judging/judging based on sex (or any stereotype!).