Secrets of The Sexes: Psychological Sex Differences

Sex DifferencesSex DifferencesThe first
programme in the BBC series ‘Secrets of Sexes‘ looked at the idea of brain sex.
It has come in for some criticism from Mind Hacks for simplifying a complicated
area of psychology and for the using the idea of ‘brain sex’.

Any TV programme on a
specialist subject like this is forced to simplify because too much heavy
detail turns off viewers. This programme, however, generally did a good job of
introducing some fascinating research and ideas about psychological sex
On average, women have
stronger verbal abilities. But what exactly does ‘verbal ability’ mean? Some of
the tests that have been used are word fluency, use of grammar, spelling,
reading, ability to understand, extend of vocabulary. In all of these areas
women show an advantage over men. The only verbal area in which men sometimes
show a small advantage is in the generation of analogies. It’s possible to
argue that these tests don’t accurately represent ‘verbal ability’, but that’s
The differences between men
and women in mathematical ability are actually fairly small. Men show a slight
advantage in geometry, probability and statistics. On the other hand, women are
slightly better at arithmetical calculations. Where there is a big gap is at
the extremes of ability. Of the most able mathematicians (top 6%), there are 13
males for every female.
Men’s main advantage is in
visuo-spatial abilities – although they only show a major advantage in one
particular area: mental rotation tasks (you can see an example here). Men also
show some advantage over women in other visuo-spatial tests such as judging the
orientation of a line and visualising objects spatially, although these
differences are not great. Men are also able to tell left from right under
pressure more accurately than women.
There are some other less
well-known physiological areas in which men and women differ. For example
women’s sense of smell is much stronger than men, as is their sense of touch.
A number of caveats need to be
applied to all this research. The most important is that on most of these tests
there is a considerable overlap between the performance of men and women. In
other words the differences are not that huge – it is best to think of an
overlapping continuum for both men and women on which the average is slightly
different for some abilities. Men and women have more similarities than
There are two more programmes
in this series and I would recommend you tune in.
[Big thanks to Ernie Govier
for a gripping lecture (I’m not joking) on psychological sex differences – of
which this post is a summary.]
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.