A recently released study from the university of Cambridge claims to show that male and female brains are clearly very different. In a huge study of over 600,000 people, the data obtained showed that men tend to be more analytical and ‘systemic’ while women tend to be more emotional and empathetic, thus providing clear evidence for controversial theories about the differences between male and female brains.
I know this, because I was on Sky News being interviewed about it earlier today (at time of writing).
Those who saw my interview will probably have noticed that I am not exactly supportive of the study or its findings.
In fairness, it’s not the first study to conclude that male and female brains are different based on questionable data. Nor is this the first time I’ve argued against such efforts. And yet, here we are, caught in another press cycle that provides needless ammunition to the battle of the sexes.
So, what’s wrong with this particular study? Quite a few things, as it happens. But there are also some major issues with the ways it’s being reported. Here’s a basic rundown, from my perspective.
It doesn’t look at brains, at all
A lot of the coverage states that this study shows clear differences between male and female brains. But… they didn’t even look at anyone’s brain! All the data collected was obtained via questionnaires, usually no longer than ten agree/disagree questions long. That’s hardly the most rigorous assessment. Not to say it’s totally without merit as a method, but to take information from a short list of questions with binary options and declare that this reflects the underlying structure of the brain itself, that’s quite a leap.
It’s tricky to do this with information from intense scanning studies, so to do it with the marks in a few tick-boxes is quite a ballsy move.
Hefty study, minimal applications
A lot has been made about the size of the study. Over 600,000 participants is pretty impressive, and will undoubtedly yield a lot of information to work with. But, as the previous point shows, this information is only as useful as the methods used to collect it, and if those are limited in scope and application, then any conclusions are going to be similarly limited.
Basically, even if you got as many as 100 million men and women to toss a coin, you couldn’t use this data to show one sex is better with financial issues.
Nature vs nurture, again
The researchers in the press release do confirm that the data from their study doesn’t actually reveal what the cause of the sex differences demonstrated. It could be genetic, it could be hormonal, it could be influences and pressures from the culture in which we develop.
However, this admission is rather brief and offhand in all the coverage I’ve seen, which instead focuses on the ‘clear differences’ between male and female brains, despite the whole ‘not actually looking at brains’ aspect.
But the possibility that this is purely a cultural thing cannot be overstated, and is, in my informed opinion, a substantially more likely explanation for any differences in the data. As many have pointed out, the conclusions being declared are based on averages, which is standard practice. But the data itself is all over the place.
As Professor Cordelia Fine (author of Testosterone Rex) pointed out; “sex differences are such that were you to choose a man and woman at random, their scores would be counter to expectations, with the man scoring higher than the woman on empathy about four times in ten”.
Basically, if men and women’s brains were fundamentally, structurally different in the ways argued here, you’d surely expect to see a much more even tendency towards being analytical and systemic? Same with women and empathy. But you don’t.
A much more realistic explanation is that we live in a society with a strong gender divide which is reinforced from day one, so all the adults in the study have developed in such a context and unavoidably internalised, to varying degrees, many of these cultural norms, i.e. women report being more emotional because they’re so often told by the world that they’re supposed to be, despite this being bollocks.
This also further highlights how the vast size of the study is of limited use and doesn’t automatically make the findings more valid. If I were to run a study 10 times this size in, say, India, and then declare that everyone has a Hindu brain, I’d be laughed out of the room.
But that’s not really that different to what’s going on here.