A World of Difference
- 2003 19 Jul
Have you ever wondered why a man can seemingly read a map blindfolded but can't find his own socks? The reason may be found in his genetic makeup. Research is discovering that men and women actually perceive reality differently.
In one university experiment, students were blindfolded while an experimenter who served as a guide walked them through a complex maze of tunnels that ran beneath campus buildings. After traversing this maze, women were asked to locate a familiar college building. Nearly every woman in the experiment was uncertain and unable to locate it.
Men, on the other hand, had relatively little trouble with the task. In spite of all the subterranean twists and turns, men tended to retain a firm sense of direction and, with a kind of internal compass, were far more likely to identify the location of the building - even after walking through the maze blindfolded. Chalk one up for the male species.
But before you put all your money on men, consider another university experiment. In this one, students were asked to wait in a small room with a cluttered desk while the experimenter "got something ready." The students thought they were simply waiting for the experiment to begin, but this actually was the experiment.
After two minutes, each student was asked to describe in detail the waiting room from memory. Men, it turned out, didn't do well on the test, and were able to remember very little. Most men were barely able to describe much of the room in clear and accurate detail. They often missed major objects located on the desk right in front of them.
Women, on the other hand, could go on and on with precise descriptions of the room's contents. In fact, women proved 70 percent better than men at recalling complex patterns formed by apparently random and unconnected items. That's one point for the women's side. But who's keeping score?
In these experiments and dozens of others like them, men and women consistently perform at different levels - sometimes men outperform women and sometimes vice versa. Based on these results, scientists are suddenly fast at work trying to account for the differences; what they're finding may surprise you.
Why are researchers just now exploring the differences between men and women? The reason can be traced back to the 1970s, when the feminist revolution nearly prohibited talk of inborn differences in the behavior of males and females. Pointing out distinctions between the sexes was simply off limits if you were a respectable researcher wanting to keep your job.
Men dominated fields like architecture and engineering, it was argued, because of social, not hormonal, pressures. Women did the vast majority of society's child rearing because few other options were available to them.
Once sexism was abolished, so the argument ran, the world would become perfectly equitable. But as hard as we tried to squelch our differences, the evidence for innate gender variance only began to mount and the differences between men and women have now become unavoidable.
What's more, the differences are not exclusively relegated to how you were raised as a child with society's traditional stereotyping. The differences, research is discovering, may lie much deeper.
Scientists have not ignored the ol' nature-nurture debate altogether, but they have come to accept that a few fundamental differences between men and women are apparently biological. It turns out that men's and women's brains, for example, are not only different, but the way we use our brains differ too.
Women have larger connections and subsequently more frequent "crosstalk" between their brains' left and right hemispheres. This accounts for women's seeming ability to have better verbal skills and relational intuition than men.
Men, on the other hand, have greater brain hemisphere separation which enhances abstract reasoning and visual-spatial intelligence. Poet and author Robert Bly describes women's brains as having a "super highway" of connection, while men have a "tiny country road."
Big deal, you may be thinking, men can rotate three-dimensional objects in their head and women are better at reading emotions of people in photographs. How's that affect my relationships with the opposite sex? Fair enough.
Here's our answer: If you evaluate the opposite gender's behavior according to your own standards, never considering significant social and biological differences, you will miss out on a meaningful connection because you were compelled to make that person more like you.
That's what we call the fundamental cross-gender relational error: assuming that misunderstandings between the sexes have only to do with cross-purposes and not psychological and biological crossed wiring.
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