‘Hard-Wired’ Sex Differences: Basically Meaningless

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The new University of Pennsylvania study that declared that men and women’s brains are just wired different — men’s for navigation, women’s for intuition — was too depressing to blog about. But the rebuttals, trickling in everywhere from Wired to academic blogs, have been gratifying. Other experts have pointed to a number of red flags in the study, illustrating how the "neurosexism" sausage gets made.

For one, the researchers were curiously interested in supporting the rational left brain vs. intuitive right brain theory — largely now considered a myth. According to neuroscientist turned journalist Christian Jarrett, experts crunched the study’s results and found they were statistically significant but not substantive, and more important, in no way linked to behaviors like map-reading and mothering. The researchers are “guessing” about how wiring differences affect behavior instead of, as neurosexism expert Cordelia Fine suggests, reflecting the physical “engineering problems” that come with having a larger-sized brain than women.

The nature of those guesses (spatial ability, multitasking) were the biggest red flag. “Remind people of gender stereotypes and they tend to perform in a way that reinforces them,” Jarrett wrote. (Meanwhile, Tom Stafford notesresearchers can easily reverse the gender stereotypes with a little psychological manipulation.) One meta-analysis shows that the vaunted male spatial ability has less to do with gender than the extent to which men and women identify with masculinity and male-oriented activities. Needless to say, the University of Pennsylvania study did not ask participants whether they were raised to play with blocks.