Do Men and Women Have Significant Physical and Mental Differences?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Men and women are believed to be so dramatically different that understanding one another is almost impossible for many. Researchers have tried to figure out how much truth lies in these common beliefs. Interestingly, their findings of studies and meta-analyses sometimes contradict significantly with common belief. Read on to find out what areas men and women are really different in, and where they are not.

A young man and woman sitting on a bench in the park. She is holding a white board with a ? cut into and and he is holding a white board with an ! cut into it.
Men and women do have differences, but in many cases, it is not as significant as people, and even scientists, used to believe. (Image: Impact Photography/Shutterstock)

Men and women are biologically different. True. Their biological differences lead to fundamental physical and mental differences, as well. True? Not always. Women are more emotional than men, less aggressive, not as good in math, and less physically strong. All of these are facts supported by research, but in the common belief, they are significantly exaggerated.

To get a more comprehensive and accurate answer to questions, researchers combine and analyze the findings from several studies on the same subject and its different aspects, which is called a meta-analysis. In the case of gender differences, researchers obtained averages of men’s and women’s characteristics through meta-analysis on studies mainly conducted in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Physical Strength and Speed

Men have a higher speed and physical strength compared to women. A meta-analysis was conducted on 47 separate studies that measured how far men and women can throw various things. The effect size, i.e., the size of the difference, was significant in this area.

fitness, sport, people, exercising and lifestyle concept - couple running upstairs on city stairs
Men are faster than women, can throw things farther, and have a stronger grip, while women are more flexible. (Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Men have a stronger grip and run faster than women, with a medium effect size. The physical reason is men’s greater muscle mass than women, but social and cultural influences also play an important role.

Another physical aspect is flexibility, where women do better than men with another medium effect size. The next area that meta-analysis covered was personality.

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Agreeableness in Men and Women

Women score higher than men on agreeableness, i.e., the degree to which people are friendly, nice, cooperative, and easy to get along with. The effect size in this trait is as significant as the one in grip strength. Women are generally more agreeable than men, while about half of all men and half of all women are comparable in agreeableness.

The meta-analysis conducted on results from over 400 studies showed that agreeableness has different realizations in behavior: women smile more and interrupt other people less than men do. The effect sizes were not too big, but noticeable in daily life. Does this mean men are more aggressive?

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The Level of Aggressiveness

Meta-analysis shows that men are more aggressive than women, on average. The common belief is that men are more physically aggressive, whereas women are more verbally aggressive. Meta-analysis proves that wrong. In many studies, men are both physically and verbally more aggressive than women, with medium effect sizes.

Agreeableness and aggressiveness are the most significantly different personality traits. Other than these two, men tend to be a little less conscientious, a little less dependable, and a little less responsible than women. Women, on the other hand, are only a little more emotional than men, with a small effect size.

In terms of psychological well-being, men and women are almost equally happy and satisfied with their lives.

Cultural and Social Factors

Scientists used to believe that many differences between men and women were inborn, but research eventually showed otherwise. Culture, socialization, and learning play an enormous role in how boys and girls behave. Thus, scientists turned to the opposite side and claimed that most differences between men and women are rooted in cultural and social factors.

Three men dressed in business attire. The man in the middle is physically holding apart the other two who are arguing.
Men are more aggressive because of testosterone, but cultural and social entities also contribute to that. (Image: Jfizkes/Shutterstock)

The counterexample of this theory was how all mammals have inborn differences between males and females. Hence, today’s view lies somewhere in the middle: men and women do differ biologically in ways that influence their behavior, but culture plays an undeniable role in creating gender differences as well.

For example, in the case of aggression, all the male mammals are more aggressive. Testosterone has an important biological role in aggression, but families and societies also tend to raise boys to be more aggressive.

Mental Abilities

Research and meta-analysis show that women are not particularly better than men in verbal skills, and men are not that much better in math. After meta-analyses of 40 studies, the effect size of verbal skills was slightly above zero, while math was a more complicated situation. Men scored slightly above women on math problem solving, but women scored slightly higher than men on math computations. Overall, the differences were very small.

One area where men had higher scores than women, with medium effect sizes, was spatial tasks. Men can mentally rotate objects better and imagine what they would look like from other angles.

Overall, the mental differences are not as significant as most people expect, while physical differences were more in line with common beliefs.

Common Questions about Men and Women

Q: Do men and women have different physical strengths?

Yes. Men and women differ in muscle mass, and men are usually physically stronger and can throw things farther than women can.

Q: Are men better than women at math?

Math is a complicated issue. Men and women perform differently in different areas. Men score slightly above women on math problem solving, but women score slightly higher than men on math computations. The differences, however, are small.

Q: Are women much more emotional than men?

Studies show that men and women are nor drastically different on the level of emotions. Women are only slightly more emotional than men.

Q: Are women easier to get along with than men?

Yes. Men and women have different levels of agreeableness. On average, women score higher in agreeableness than men, which means they are easier to get along with.

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