UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Gender and brains: Be cautious when connecting differences to behavior

Rep. Kenneth Fredette apparently believes that the male and female brains are so different that when women hear about policies like Medicaid expansion, their ditsy neurological response is to think, “Free! Free!” while the much more mature and responsible male brain thinks, “Oh, my gosh, how are we going to pay for this?”

Another week, another statement from a politician that brings into question his scientific literacy.

This time the statement comes from the leader of the Republicans in Maine’s House of Representatives, state Rep. Kenneth Fredette. Last week, after his colleague, state Rep. Linda Sanborn, a Democrat and retired family physician, argued in favor of federal funding for Medicaid expansion, Fredette stood up on the floor of the Maine legislature to speak against it.

And that’s when he put his foot firmly in his mouth. Fredette apparently believes that the male and female brains are so different that when women hear about policies like Medicaid expansion, their ditsy neurological response is to think, “Free! Free!” while the much more mature and responsible male brain thinks, “Oh, my gosh, how are we going to pay for this?”

Here are Fredette’s very own words:

As I listen to the debate today and earlier debate on this bill, I can’t help but think of a title of a book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” And it’s a book about the fact that men sort of think one way in their own brain, in their own world. And women think another way in their brain and in their own world. And it really talks about the way that men and women can do a better job at communicating.

Because if you listen to the debate today, in my mind — a man’s mind — I hear really two fundamental issues. From the other side of the aisle, I hear the conversation being about: free. ‘This is free, we need to take it, and it’s free. And we need to do it now.’ And that’s sort of the fundamental message that my brain receives. Now, my brain, being a man’s brain, sort of thinks differently, because I say, well, it’s not — if it’s free, is it really free? Because I say, in my brain, there’s a cost to this.”

Now, obviously, the idea that women never bother their pretty little heads with things like the cost of health insurance is just plain idiotic. In fact, on this particular issue, those female brains Fredette seems to be disparaging actually have it right: Even the very conservative Heritage Foundation has (reluctantly) acknowledged that accepting federal health care funding for Medicaid expansion will save Maine a bundle of money.

But that issue aside, Fredette’s comments offer a helpful “teaching moment” on the subject of gender brain differences. For as British psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett noted in his “Brain Myths” blog for Psychology Today last year, while there are important sex-related brain differences (males, for example, are more likely to be autistic), we should be cautious about how we interpret those differences, particularly when it comes to behavior.

Yes, scientists have found that men’s brains are, on average, larger than those of women, writes Jarrett. And there are also differences in the size of specific brain structures. For example, women (again, on average) tend to have a larger hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory, among other functions. Men, on the other hand, tend to have a larger amygdala, which is involved in emotional processing.

Those differences are sometimes used to explain why, say, men forget to buy the milk when sent to the store by their wives. But making such leaps (as is done repeatedly in the 1992 book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”) is scientifically unfounded and, well, ludicrous. (Indeed, the Mars-Venus book has been thoroughly debunked.)

Writes Jarrett (with British spellings):

It’s tempting to see the brain differences between the sexes, mythical or otherwise, and think that they explain behavioural differences; such as men’s milk amnesia, their superiority on mental rotation tasks or women’s advantage with emotional processing. In fact, in many cases we simply don’t know the implications of the sex-related brain differences. It’s even possible that brain differences are responsible for behavioural similarities between the sexes. This is known as the “compensation theory” and it could explain why men and women’s performance on various tasks is similar even whilst they show different patterns of brain activity. Bearing this in mind, readers should treat with extreme scepticism those evangelists who draw on supposed sex-related brain differences to support their claims about the need for gendered educational practices.

It’s also important to remember that behavioural differences between the sexes are rarely as fixed as is often made out in the media. Cultural expectations and pressures play a big part. For instance, telling women that their sex is inferior at mental rotation tends to provoke poor performance; giving them empowering information, by contrast, tends to nullify any sex differences. Related to this, in countries that subscribe less strongly to gender-stereotyped beliefs about ability, women tend to perform better at science. These kind of findings remind us that over-simplifying and over-generalising findings about gender differences risks setting up vicious self-fulfilling prophesies, so that men and women come to resemble unfounded stereotypes

Your can read Jarrett’s article on the Psychology Today website (where he also shatters the myth that women are better listeners because they have “more balanced brains”).

Jarrett recommends three evidence-based books on this topic: “Delusions of Gender, the Real Science Behind Sex Differences,” “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” and “Brain Gender.”

Someone should send Rep. Fredette copies. He needs to update his reading.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/17/2013 - 01:20 pm.

    Mythical explanations

    Back before we understood things like natural selection, cultures used to make up stories about how giraffes’ necks got so long. And, because those cultures didn’t know what natural selection was, there was nothing in the way of natural selection in those stories. You can’t blame them for getting it wrong.

    In this day and age, it’s not terribly difficult to understand that there is no “weaker sex.” But it’s sometimes difficult to understand why you simply don’t understand the opposite sex. For those who fail to engage their own brains, it’s easy to make up stories about why the sexes are so different (despite the fact that much of the difference is perceived). Rep. Fredette is one of those who makes frequent use of his mental neutral and reverse gears. He and others that also happily subscribe to the “women are inferior because if they’re not, I feel inferior” theory also frequently claim that women voted for Obama because they want someone to take care of them. I, on the other hand, having a female brain, think it was, in part, because our other main choice was to vote for someone who believe that women are merely a set of ovaries and a uterus. Go figure.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/18/2013 - 09:27 am.

    First of all,

    you’re sure that Fredette knows how to read.

    More seriously, speaking as an emeritus professor of psychology,
    there’s a huge leap of faith involved in attributing differences in behavior to differences in brain structure.
    While we know that particular parts of the brain are particularly important for different types of function, we are a long way from the kind of detailed functional knowledge needed to actually use these structural differences to account for behavior.
    A final point:
    As you point out, these gender differences in the relative size of brain structures are -averages-. There’s a great deal of overlap between male and female populations, so that we can say with certainty that the -average- female hippocampus is bigger than the male hippocampus, we cannot say that the hippocampus of a given female is bigger than that of a given male unless we do MRI measurements for both individuals involved. These are statements about populations, not about individuals.

Leave a Reply