The Truth About Pink and Blue Brains

I loathe to weigh in on the “war on men” conversation, but … alas.

While one can use both logic and data to poke gaping holes in Suzanne Venker’s argument that women need to surrender to their femininity and let men think that they’re in charge if they ever want to get married, I just want to point out one thing–one endlessly repeated thing–that she gets very, very wrong.

Venker claims that there has “been an explosion of brain research” that proves that men and women have different brains. This research, she claims, shows that men are loners who like to hunt and build things and women are nurturers who like to talk and take care of people.

This is false on two fronts.

First, she’s wrong about the brain research.  The books and articles claiming that there are “pink” and “blue” brains are not consistent with existing research.  (They are out there because people can make a lot of money by confirming other people’s biases.)

What does the research say?

It’s true that scientists have documented a number of small, average sex differences in brain anatomy, composition and function, as well as differences in size and tissue ratios. (Other differences, such as the size of the corpus callosum [PDF] and lateralization–whether one sex uses one side of their brain more than the other–have proven to be wrong [PDF].)

So scientists do find some differences, but they have largely failed to link these to differences in men’s and women’s observed emotions, cognition or behavior. That is, we’ve found some differences, but we have no proof that they translate into anything. Moreover, new research suggests that differences we observe may be designed not to create differences between men and women but to reduce them. The brain may have two strategies for achieving the same outcome, or one difference may compensate for another. (For more, see Brain Gender by Melissa Hines.)

That’s one reason why Venker is wrong.

The second reason is even more damning. Most of the research attempting to explain gender difference assumes that there differences to explain.  In fact, meta-analyses aimed at summarizing the literature on human sex differences and similarities in traits, personality, cognitive abilities, sexuality, temperament, and motor skills offer better evidence for similarity than difference. On the vast majoity of traits, men and women overlap tremendously.

Janet Hyde, a pioneer in this area, did a meta-analysis of meta-analyses that combined the results of 7,084 separate studies. She found evidence for a large or very large difference on eight percent of characteristics, and evidence for medium-sized differences on 15 percent.  She found evidence for small differences on another 48 percent.  What does a small difference look like?  Here’s an example of a mid-range small difference (for self-esteem):

For the final 30 percent of characteristics, she found no evidence of gender difference. So, on 78 percent of characteristics, she found teensy differences or none at all. Wow, “opposite sexes” indeed.

The truth is, men aren’t loners and women aren’t talkers. Venker assumes the stereotypes and counts on her readers to agree that they are true, but the data doesn’t back her up.

Two excellent books summarize the debates over gender and neuroscience. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is great for a beginner; she’s funny and you’ll learn a lot. Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm is great for someone who wants an intermediate-to-advanced introduction to these issues. Her book is downright brilliant. I highly recommend both.

Crossposted from Sociological Images

Brain embroideries from Flickr user Hey Paul Studios under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. I question brain research. How could the brain of a group who commits horrendous acts of violence be a similar brain to the group who breast feeds? “Males” is a group whose behavior is aggressive and violent. May I also mention acts of corruption are also rampant around the globe. Socialization cannot be the sole cause of such behavior. There must be something going on in the male brain which contributes to such destructive behavior. Maybe we are going in the wrong direction in brain research.

  2. Ailim Hazel says:

    I don’t think violence has anything to do with the Y chromosome. I think that the reason we have so many examples from all over the world of male-violence is because the examples we remember; Stalin, Hitler, Pol-Pot; are all male but are also men of power. Since historically men have always held positions of power while women were kept in a position of servitude and property, we “see” more male violence. However, when we look at violence in the home, we see a lot of women attacking children often in horrible ways. This has both to do with proximity and opportunity coupled with women’s relegation to the domestic sphere. Women can be aggressive warriors, Amazons, Boudica, today’s women in the military; as well as gentle caregivers. Men can be tyrannical dictators but can also be gentle and loving husbands and fathers.
    Maybe the reason we have had to many violent male-leaders, besides the fact that men are more likely to be leaders in the first place, is because such power has a tendency to corrupt and distort one’s good intentions. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Frederick Douglas described this kind of tendency when describing the wife of a slave owner. She initially didn’t want slaves at all but her husband forced her to accept a house slave. At first she was kind but gradually over time she became aggressive and demanding. Her kind spirit became corroded and brutal because of the power she possessed to destroy and control the life of another. Men historically have had this power over women and women in the household have had this power over children. That dark voice is inside all of us and is difficult to resist.

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