That men are more behaviourally extreme than women has been proposed previously and posited as a reason for some of the gender differences in certain professions and in society. This has also been used to explain why men are more prominent in society (aside from obvious patriarchal heritage of most societies). This is because the extremes will reap the rewards on one hand (for example, Nobel laureates) but also the punishments on the other hand (prisons are also full of men).
Men fill up the extremes. The question is, is this a self-fulfilling prophecy i.e. society norms and reinforcing behaviours and role models or is this really how men and women are?
This is where this latest published research out of the University of Sydney is very interesting because it measured a lot of men and women and their attitudes — specifically 50'000 participants and 97 samples. That’s a big study.
And what did they find?
Yes, men are more extreme but not just in factors that have previously been well-known such as risk-taking but in just about everything! You can find men who are very, very selfish and men who are very, very altruistic.
“We found men were much more likely than women to be at the extreme ends of the behavioural spectrum, either acting very selfishly or very altruistically, very trusting or very distrusting, very fair or very unfair, very risky or very risk averse and were either very short-term or very long-term focused.”
The above quote by Stefan Volk co-author of the study shows that this extreme behaviour seems to be in multiple realms, if not all. What is interesting is that this has previously not been measured because the average of the behaviours may not vary that greatly between men and women.
And the big question is why is this so?
There are three competing hypotheses
- First is that the norms of society and expected behaviours generate these extremes with these becoming fulfilling prophecies. However, because the both sides of the scale are represented by men it is hard to see how this could become the norm.
- The second hypothesis is that this is evolutionary based — specifically in mate attraction. Namely that men had to deviate more from the norm to be able stand out and be attractive to females and have mating opportunities whereas women did not.
- The third hypothesis is similar to the first in that a patriarchal society constrains women who exhibit extremes of behaviour.
Indeed a small piece of research we did a few years ago on personality types and gender (to show differences in decision-making for diversity and inclusion purposes) gave an answer that would support the third hypothesis.
When rating arrogant high performers that were either male or female (descriptions were exactly the same for each sex), females were ranked more extremely positively or negatively than males. It must be noted that both male and female polarised opinions with some rating them as very good candidates for promotion and others not. But the woman polarised more than the man suggesting that this is considered more unusual behaviour and so judged as better or worse.
However, considering some of these behaviours such as risk-taking arise very early in childhood — there is no doubt that there is a genetic component.
So, to sum up, men are more extreme — sometimes for better (a lot better) and sometimes for worse (a lot worse).
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Andy is author of leading brains Review a monthly e-magazine on all things the brain, behaviour, and business