By Mark Leary, PhD, Duke University
Nine out of 10 prison inmates are men. What accounts for such startling gender differences in terms of psychology? Discover how cultural forces, society, and other factors converge, leading to such dramatic contrasts.
Why Psychology Continues to Mystify Us
Human behavior is exceptionally complicated at times. It’s influenced by many interacting forces.
Some of the causes of behavior lie in the genetic blueprint that designed our brains, but much of behavior is influenced by people’s personal experiences, how they were raised, and the influence of other people, social groups, and culture.
In trying to understand behavior, psychological scientists struggle to make sense of that large amount of complexity via their research studies, which, however, can only tackle a limited number of variables at a time.
Although it’s relatively easy for researchers to design studies in which they measure many variables and analyze the relationships among them, those kinds of studies usually don’t provide definitive evidence about the causes of puzzling behaviors.
The problem is that, even when we find that variables are related to each other, we often can’t identify which variables cause people’s reactions.
For example, we know a tremendous amount about the characteristics of people who develop problems with alcohol. We know about their backgrounds, experiences, personalities, and even their genetic profiles.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
But a complete understanding of alcoholism remains elusive because we can’t tell which characteristics and experiences of alcoholics are causes of their problems, which ones are effects of having problems with alcohol, and which ones are just coincidentally associated with other factors that predict problem drinking.
To understand the causes of behavior, researchers must conduct controlled experiments, but many topics are difficult, if not impossible, to study under controlled conditions.
We can’t conduct controlled experiments on the causes of phenomena such as child abuse, depression, or alcoholism because we would have to subject people to conditions that might cause them to abuse their children, become depressed, or develop a drinking problem.
Ethical and methodological constraints on the kinds of research that scientists can conduct limit the strength of the conclusions that they can draw. Scientists conduct the best research they can, knowing that, in the end, they may often have only a piece of the puzzle.
Learn more about how puzzling aspects of human behavior lie in some of the fundamental characteristics of the human species
Puzzling Facts about Men Versus Women
Consider these facts: Nine out of 10 prison inmates are men; among people who are homeless, men outnumber women by at least 3 to 1; men are 10 times more likely to murder somebody than women are; men are more likely to show up at the low end of distributions of IQ scores—they are more likely to be mentally retarded—than women; men are more likely to abuse and abandon their children, and less likely to take care of their aging parents.
On psychological measures of undesirable characteristics, men outscore women on measures of cruelty, closed-mindedness, hostility, narcissism, and self-indulgence. To top it all off, men die earlier than women—about five years earlier on average.
It doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of the male gender. It’s not only an unflattering picture, but it’s a rather puzzling one, particularly puzzling given that we normally assume that men in most societies have it better than women do.
But why would the advantaged gender be so much more maladjusted, antisocial, and unhealthy? That’s an interesting and important question because the answer may tell us something about how to reduce certain social problems that are created mostly by men.
This difference between the genders is an extremely complex issue, and the experts don’t agree on its answer. But it provides a good example for looking at how behavioral scientists think about and confront complex questions.
First, there may be some evolutionary and biological processes at play. These differences between men and women can be seen around the world, and they don’t map easily onto cultural variables.
Some of these differences might be traced to testosterone, for example, which helps to make men more aggressive, dominant, competitive, and willing to take risks than women.
Learn more about how genes have a pronounced effect on people’s personalities
Variability among Genders
Furthermore, there’s evidence that, for some reason, evolution operated in such a way that men show greater variability on many characteristics than women do.
If we measure almost any characteristic—whether it’s a physical characteristic such as height, weight, or a psychological characteristic such as intelligence or extraversion—the scores tend to fall in a bell-shaped or normal distribution.
Most people score around the average, and the number of scores tapers off toward the extremes. This distribution is true for both men and women—most people are in the center of this bell-shaped distribution of scores, and relatively few people have very low or very high scores on whatever we are measuring.
But here’s the interesting thing: On many characteristics, more men score at the extremes—both extremes—than women do.
Let’s take physical height. Of course, men are, on average, taller than women.
But the interesting thing is that men show more variability around the average height than women do. To say it differently, there are more really short men and really tall men, compared to the average man, than there are really short women and really tall women, compared to the average woman.
We also see this effect on birth weight; there’s more variability in the weight of male babies than female babies. Height and weight are important examples because they are determined mostly by people’s genes. These findings suggest that men are naturally more variable than women in terms of height and weight. Biologists disagree about why this occurs, but the phenomenon appears to be real.
But could this extra variability explain why men are more likely to have behavioral and social problems than women do?
It might—at least in part—because we would find more men than women down in the problematic end of distributions of psychological characteristics. The fact that men are more variable than women may naturally lead more men to have problems.
Learn more about the differences in how men and women behave
How Cultures Disadvantage Men
That’s evolution and biology, but culture might also contribute to the high proportion of men who have serious problems.
Much has been written over the years about cultural practices that disadvantage and hurt women around the world, which is true. But less has been said about ways in which cultures also disadvantage and hurt men.
Perhaps the most obvious example involves the fact that, throughout history, men have been the ones who are expected to go to war and risk injury or death in service to their country. Certainly, more women are entering the military than ever before, but men still shoulder most of the fighting.
This fact is relevant to the question of why more men than women show serious dysfunctions. Many of those men are veterans who have experienced psychological problems, developed addictions, or become homeless. Cultural systems may help to create some of men’s psychological problems.
Add to that the dangers of people’s jobs. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, 92% of Americans who die on the job are men. Why?
Because men are more likely than women to have jobs where they run into burning buildings to put out fires, have gun battles with criminals, work in logging, or construction. Working in dangerous jobs is exceptionally stressful daily, and perhaps those stressors contribute to some of the differences between men and women.
Why are men overrepresented in these jobs? In some cases, it may be due to size or strength; but often it’s a cultural norm that says that these are men’s jobs and that women shouldn’t be doing them. Again, we can see the role of culture in this puzzling pattern of problems.
Men are also more likely to be raised to think of themselves in these kinds of occupations. Here’s where the capacity for self-awareness creeps in.
The fact that people can think consciously about themselves, including their gender and society’s expectations for them, helps to lead men down some of the roads that end in psychological problems. It’s partly a matter of differences in men’s and women’s self-images.
Learn more about why we’re so concerned with others’ thoughts about us
The Complexities of Human Behavior
Of course, women have their own sets of psychological problems—they are more likely to become depressed than men, for example—but men specialize in antisocial, self-destructive, and aggressive kinds of problems.
The direct causes of these differences are difficult to study. Researchers can document the factors that are associated with these differences between men and women. But there’s no easy way to identify precisely what causes them because we can’t do controlled experiments to identify the causes of alcoholism, homelessness, child abuse, or murder.
Behavioral scientists have made great progress in understanding differences between men and women, yet the inherent complexity of human behavior means that some mysteries are difficult to crack.
When we begin to look deeply, even the most ordinary and commonplace reactions are often wonderfully complex.
Happiness, conflict, blushing, love, dreaming, memory, stress, self-esteem—these are the experiences of which our lives are made. But they each also contain an air of mystery.
Common Questions About Gender Differences in Psychology
Gender differences in the brain do exist anatomically. The size of the male’s brain is, on average, larger than the female brain. This, however, does not translate to differences in intelligence.
Gender differences do exist, with women showing signs of various emotional states more dramatically than men. However, this appears to be largely cultural and not biological.
Males do tend to act more outwardly violent than females. It appears to have little to do with the brain, but rather is connected to evolutionary roles and cultural conditioning.
Based on the XY sex–determination system, gender differences appear to be induced by hormones that affect the ratio of x or y chromosomes that the male contributes to the ovum.