Sexes Are More Alike Than Different, Study Shows

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When it comes to psychology, men and women have more common ground than you might think, a new study shows.

“The big picture is that gender similarities are far more the rule than gender differences,” Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, tells WebMD. “The large differences are few and far between.”

”People are often surprised about it,” says Hyde. She is a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin.

Hyde’s message: Men and women can improve their personal and professional lives by focusing on their similarities instead of magnifying their differences.

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Do You Know the Differences?

How well do you know men and women? Take Hyde’s true-false quiz:

--There are gender differences in boys’ and girls’ math performance. (False)

--Adolescent girls have low self-esteem and adolescent boys don’t. (False)

--Teen boys can throw a baseball a lot farther than teen girls. (True)

--Boys are more physically aggressive than girls. (True)

--Men interrupt conversations more often. (True)

--Men use assertive language more than women. (True)

--Women talk about themselves more freely to strangers than men. (False)

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Big Differences Rare

Some of those differences are “tiny,” says Hyde. “The overwhelming result is that in most of these studies, the difference is either zero or very close to zero,” she says.

That includes communication styles for men and women (interrupting conversations and talking assertively).

Difference in physical aggression for boys and girls is “medium size.”

Exceptions are throwing ability, incidence of masturbation, and attitudes about sex in a casual, uncommitted relationship, according to Hyde’s study.

“In contrast, the gender difference in reported sexual satisfaction is close to zero,” writes Hyde.

Age-Old Topic

How men and women think, feel, and act have sparked debate (and drama) for thousands of years. You don’t need a PhD to have an opinion about it. Everyone from Shakespeare to Drs. Phil and Ruth has weighed in on the topic.

Hyde’s view appears in American Psychologist. She reviewed 124 studies on male-female psychological differences.

Common Ground

“The radical thing is for people just to start walking around thinking that men and women are quite similar,” says Hyde. “Think about all the cases where you behave similarly.

“It really revolutionizes our view of the world and makes it a better place because there are more people we can communicate with, more people we can get along with,” she says.

Costs of Stereotypes

Stereotypes can have a high price, notes Hyde.

There is a “huge cost to belief in overinflated claims about gender differences -- costs in interpersonal relationships [and] in the workplace,” she says.

For instance, self-esteem issues are usually mentioned for teen girls, not teen boys, Hyde notes.

“We could overlook the boys with self-esteem problems because we’re so focused on girls’ problems,” she says.

Likewise, Hyde says she doesn’t want to see girls’ math ability downplayed because people mistakenly believe that boys are better at math.

Tendency to Typecast

The media often play up gender differences, and people often do the same thing, Hyde notes.

“Humans have a tendency to categorize,” she says. “We want to categorize people into males and females, blacks and whites, gays and straights. That’s a powerful tendency.

“Beliefs in gender differences are very comfortable to people,” she says. “It’s convenient. Your marriage is in trouble, you go to the therapist, you’re having communication problems, it’s because she communicates differently than I do,” she says.

“Well, the research doesn’t actually show huge gender differences in communication,” Hyde continues. “It’s not about one person being a man and one a woman. It’s about trying to communicate better, which is hard work.”

Biology or Culture?

“The biological-cultural part is almost impossible to untangle because they have such a reciprocal influence,” says Hyde.

That is, one can affect the other. Take aggressiveness, for example.

“Maybe boys’ greater aggressiveness is a little bit primed by them having more testosterone than girls,” says Hyde. “But then, culture magnifies that and culture encourages what probably was just a tiny difference.”

“So typically, you have multiple causes,” she continues.

“The more that boys engage in aggressive behavior, that probably has an effect on their brains. Because they have more practice with aggression, that may make them more aggressive” and vice versa for girls, says Hyde.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Hyde, J. American Psychologist, September 2005; vol 60: pp 581-592. Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, professor of psychology and women’s studies, University of Wisconsin. News release, American Psychological Association.