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Mars? Venus? We're all in the same solar system

New study finds men and women aren’t all that different – but why do we think so?

Are men and women really that different?

New research suggests no — at least not in the psychological scheme of things.

Carothers

“We often think that men and women are obviously different,” says lead author Bobbi Carothers, PhD, senior data analyst at the Center for Public Health System Science at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. “And now there’s this new study that says we’re not. So what are these crackpot scientists up to now?”

The study was published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and highlighted in a story out of the University of Rochester. It found that men and women don’t fit neatly into gender stereotypes.

Carothers and co-author Harry Reis, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, analyzed 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 subjects. They found that while men and women were categorically different on physical traits and some types of leisure activities, there were many traits that weren’t so different. Traits such as empathy, emotional intimacy, masculine and feminine personality, and interest in science did not show categorical separations between men and women.

While these traits do show average differences between the genders, these differences were not large or consistent enough to say that men and women are different kinds of people.

“Now that we know the findings of our study, the question then, becomes why we think men and women are so different when our results say otherwise,” Carothers says.

Carothers has some theories:

Traits that do show categorical differences are easy to see. "Biological sex differences such as body size, shape and upper-body strength are clearly visible," she says. "Stereotyped behaviors such as who cleans the house and who’s most interested in the football game are also easy to see."

Sex seems to be important for us to know. “It drives us nuts when we can’t figure out a person’s sex (remember “Pat” from the Saturday Night Live skits?),” Carothers says. “We ask pregnant women if they know what they’re having. The first question we ask about a newborn is whether it’s a boy or a girl — even before we ask about the health of the baby and mother.”

Opposites are easy for us. “It’s easy for us to think in dichotomies,” Carothers says. “We like to lump everyone into male or female, because that’s easier than assessing everyone on an individual basis.”

Traits that do not show categorical differences are difficult to see. “Things like sexual attitudes, empathy, masculine and feminine traits, interest in science, intimacy, how we think about relationships — all go on in our heads. We often assume they follow the same patterns as the more visible differences. They don’t always.”

So what’s the best way to find out what planet we’re on?

“Just ask,” Carothers says.

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