The Essential Difference- The Truth about the Male and Female Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen

Recently, I read through a book by Simon Baron-Cohen, a prominent UK psychologist and cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen, regarding his theory of the male and female brain.  He is most known for his research into empathy and developmental disorders (i.e. autism) which have brought him around to this more over-arching theory.

The female brain has evolved to be better structured for empathy whereas the male brain is structured for understanding and building systems.  This leads to three types of brains: Empathy (E), Systematizing (S) or Balanced (B) brain.

He does point out that males can have female brains and visa versa, but on average females score high on empathy than males and males score higher on the systematizing tasks than women.

Dr. Baron-Cohen spends much of the book analyzing the behavior of children and their interactions to support his claim.  Boys, for example, choose to play with mechanical toys (trucks, cars) and enjoy ordering and analyzing facts like baseball or soccer scores.  Girls, however, tend to play with dolls and adopt a more social style of play.  They exhibit more cooperative and pretend play which greatly involves interacting and reading the actions of another person or playmate.

Secondly, he reviews the method of developing social stratus or hierarchy.  Boys, he says, quickly establish social dominance, often squashing the weakest for the greater reward of power.

Girls, however, are slower to establish this ranking and use more indirect forms of aggression (ex. gossip) to earn power without outwardly putting down others. This, he suggests, is due to a greater emphasis on empathy in the female brain.

Thirdly, he reviews the varied styles of interaction.  When girls are breaking into a group of strangers, they take time to judge the scene and attempt to cooperatively join the experience.  They are also more likely than boys to invite a stranger into the group activity.  On the other hand, boys were seen to join in the group and attempt to change the activity to whatever he wanted to do and would ignore newcomers (low on empathy).

Tests & Experiments:
Empathizing/Systematizing Quotients: As mentioned in the beginning, females generally score higher in empathy and males score higher in systematizing.

Theory of mind/Eyes Test:  Females consistently score higher on this type of test which involved reading cues from another individual and creating a mental concept of what the other person is thinking.  The most famous form of this experiment is the “Sally-Ann Test.”  Sally puts her marble in a basket and leaves the room.  Ann the moves the marble to the box before Sally re-enters.  The experimenter asks where Sally will look for the marble.  There is discussion as to when Theory of Mind develops, but it is considered a great area of difficult for autistic individuals.

The Eyes test requires the subject to look at a photo of just someone’s eyes and attempt to choose the feeling the person is expressing (happy, excited, playful, suspicious).

Language: Females develop language earlier and their speech tends to involve more reciprocal and collaborative statements which encourage participation and extension from the other individual.

Systematizing tasks:  Males preform higher on a varied set of tasks which fall under this category such as mental rotation tests and 3-D visualization tasks.

Face vs. System: Newborn males looked longer a complex mobile than the experimenter’s face (opposite that of females) and baby boys preferred to watch a video of cars than a silent video of a talking head (opposite that of females).

Waiting Room Study: In this case, parent/child interactions were studied while they were in the waiting room of a doctors office.  Boys were reprimanded twice as often as females, but the girls looked at their parents more frequently.  This is analyzed to mean that girls are superior at reading the cues of their parents and thus do forbidden actions less often.

There is a large amount of information in this section which I will not relate, but the main point indicates hormones as an important factor.  Specifically, levels of testosterone influence performance on many of the tasks mentioned above which would indicate superiority in the systematizing category.  Even injection of testosterone into female rats would increase their scores on systematizing tasks.  Clearly, genetics and biology are involved in the specialization of the brain, but I doubt it is the only factor.

This is one of the most crucial parts of the book and I am not sure I believe everything he asserts. Specialization of brains into the E and S brains has evolved to fit two specific niches enhancing performance in the following areas:

-Systematizing: making tools, hunting/tracking, trading, power, dominance, aggression, solitude, and leadership
-Empathizing: building/maintaining friendships, mothering, gossip, social mobility, and reading your partner

This section lacks the most physical evidence as it is very difficult to study the effect of culture vs. biology etc.  However, he claims that since male v. female hierarchies are set up in basically the same way around the globe, it must be attributed to more biological and evolutionary factors than culture.  Also, he claims that boys prefer to play with more mechanical toys and females with dolls, but I am not convinced that is 100% true.  Additionally, he asserts that children do not know “girls toys” from “boys toys” by age 2, so this toy choice is purely inherent, but again… not convinced.  Finally, he suggests that fields like math and physics are predominately male-dominated because males are superior at these subjects and areas and that discrimination does not play that large of a role.

While I do think that biology does play a large role in female vs. male styles of interaction, I cannot believe that girls with female brains only enjoy playing with dolls because that is how they are made. As some other bloggers have mentioned, they would have played with more gender-neutral or “male” toys if they had be more accessible and more socially acceptable.   In a sense, I understand the pull of wanting females to be superior than males at everything, so accepting that men are more effective these systematizing categories may be hard to swallow.  However, the theory that men are less empathizing, thus they do not mind ruining another person to establish their dominance, does seem to make a lot of sense.

Again, biological sex does not necessarily predetermine your brain sex.  Personally, I scored extremely high on the Empathy Quotient and average on the Systematizing Quotient.  I’m not sure where that quite puts me.

Try it yourself
Empathy Quotient (Adult) and Systematizing Quotient (Adult)