Are Men Really Less Emotional Than Women?

by Seth Millstein

A sad new study released last week finds that most men would rather experience electrical shocks than be alone with their thoughts . (Yes, really.) Here's how the study worked: First, men and women were asked to sit in a room alone and think about nothing — aka meditate — a task which prompted most of them to have negative thoughts. Then, they were given the same instructions, but with the added option of administering a small electrical shock to themselves, presumably as a distraction. Only a quarter of women chose to self-administer a shock, but a whole two-thirds of men did. (One man shocked himself 190 times.)

In other words, most men would apparently rather experience physical pain than be alone with their own thoughts. That’s a pretty bleak assessment of the male psyche, and even the most charitable interpretation — that men are more “sensation seeking” than women — is drenched in gender normativity and stereotypes.

It’s impossible for any one study to prove anything concrete one way or the other about something as nebulous as gender norms. But studies can serve as helpful jumping-off points for discussions on said stereotypes, and can get us talking about gender norms. We rounded up some research that also shines a spotlight on the role gender plays in our culture. Some of these studies contradict gender stereotypes, some confirm them, but all of them could be used as a entryway to more thoughtful discussion and debate about gender on the whole. And that’s always a good thing.

Stereotype: Men Like Sex More Than Women

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The assumption that men have vastly greater sexual drives than women is still pervasive. Even in 2014, there’s still a great amount of hostility directed towards the notion that women may actually have libidos after all. It hasn’t helped that there are numerous studies that, at least on their surface, back this stereotype up. In one 1997 study, USC students were asked how many sexual partners they’d ideally like to have over their lifetimes. Women, on average, said between two and three. Men said — wait for it — 64.

A 2001 meta-study concluded that men have higher sex drives than women, with researchers writing that they "did not find a single study, on any of nearly a dozen different measures, that found women had a stronger sex drive than men." A 2005 BBC survey also had men self-reporting higher sex drives than women.

But as is so common in self-reported surveys like this, it’s difficult to determine any causation here. Did the women who were surveyed feel pressure to name a lower number, because that’s what “good” girls are “supposed to” do? Did the men feel pressure to give a higher number for largely the same reason? While this doesn’t invalidate the study entirely, they do highlight how difficult it is to gauge sex drive with so many societal and historical norms looming overhead.

Stereotype: Men Like Women With More Makeup

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In a 2014 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, men and women were given photos of women with varying degrees of makeup, and asked to rank their attractiveness. The result was, to the researchers, a surprise: Both men and women found the women more attractive when they were wearing less makeup — up to 40 percent less, in fact. This was despite the fact that the same men and women also told researchers that, in general, they found women more attractive when they were wearing more makeup.

So, there seems to be an expectation amongst everybody that more makeup makes a woman more attractive, and that expectation appears to be incorrect. But what if women who apply makeup aren’t doing so solely to attract men, but rather, because they enjoy wearing makeup? And if that’s the case, to what extent is this enjoyment the result of aggressive and visible marketing to American women by cosmetics companies?

The researchers presented their findings as an example of how difficult it to predict what other people will find attractive, as did most media reporting on it (“Women should probably cool it with the eyeliner,” TIME helpfully wrote). In a way, that framing reveals just as much about American gender norms as do the study’s results.

Stereotype: Men Are Less Emotional Than Women

In one study, two groups of volunteers — half men, half women — had their physiology measured with skin conductance electrodes while being shown videos with varying emotional content. The men exhibited stronger emotional reactions than women to all categories of video, and responded twice as strongly to content described as “heart-warming” than did their female counterparts. At the same time, the men in this study reported feeling less emotion than they actually did (to the extent that electrodes can quantify emotion). In a separate survey by the same researchers, 67 percent of men said that they were more emotional than they appeared.

There’s a lot to untangle here. The fact that men reported a weaker emotional response than they actually had would seem to imply that men are, in some way, unaware of their own emotions. On the other hand, a majority of men said that they experienced more emotion than they let on in public, which suggests at least some degree of awareness about their own emotional states. Perhaps the larger lesson here is that one of the biggest gender norms out there is wrong, and that when confronted with the expectation to appear emotionless, men react in unpredictable — and at times, contradictory — ways.

Stereotype: Men Don't Really Care About Women's Rights

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In 2012, a study published in Social Forces attempted to gauge the effect having children has on a person’s own attitudes about gender. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the researchers took survey questions designed to measure gender normativity — “A woman’s place is in the home, not in the office or shop,” for example — and compared the results of the respondents before and after they became parents.

Before having children, women were less likely than men to believe in 1950s-era gender roles; after having kids, men’s faith in gender roles plummeted, particularly if their firstborn was a girl. Women’s attitudes on gender, however, stayed roughly the same.

The obvious explanation here is that men who have daughters suddenly become invested in the well-being of girl in a way they never had before, and that this increases their empathy towards women in general. Combine this with the fact that perhaps women’s faith in outmoded gender norms was low to begin with, and we arrive at one of the most important yet infrequently mentioned truths about gender and privilege: If you’re not part of a group that’s being oppressed or discriminated against, it can be impossible see that that discrimination actually exists. Only after having daughters did the men in this experiment realize how pernicious and harmful traditional gender expectations hoisted upon women actually are.

Stereotype: Women Are More Attracted To Musicians

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In one French study, a 20-year-old man approached and asked for the phone numbers of 300 women. When he wasn’t holding anything, 14 percent of women gave him their number. When he was holding a sports bag, only nine percent gave him their number. But when he had a guitar in hand? Thirty-one percent. In a similar Israeli study, 100 single female college students were sent a flirtatious Facebook message from a man. When the man was holding a guitar, the response rate was 28 percent; when he wasn’t, it fell to 10 percent. The Israeli researchers repeated the study with the genders reversed — and found no corresponding difference in responses.

The notion that women are more attracted to musicians is one of the oldest cliches in the book, and these two studies aren’t the only ones that suggest there may be some truth to it. While the reasons behind this will probably always be somewhat mysterious, one theory holds that because some of the skills required of musicians — creativity, work ethic, patience — are also traits that make for a good parent, humans evolved to be attractive to musically-inclined people (although that wouldn't explain why only women seem to have this attraction).

While these studies don’t prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, they do suggest that sometimes, stereotypes do have a basis in reality. But it’s impossible to determine whether or not that’s the case without doing some sort of empirical research, and all too often, people subscribe to norms and stereotypes without any evidence at all.