Many situations require us to make categorical decisions. Jurors look at testimony and judge whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. Police officers take aim at suspects and have to determine whether they see a gun in the suspect’s hand, or something that just resembles a gun. A man in his 40s begins to sweat and experience mild pain in his arms, and needs to decide whether it’s serious or not.
New research suggests gender plays a role in these decisions because men tend to organize the world into distinct categories whereas women see things as more conditional and in shades of gray.
Psychologists at the University of Warwick had men and women judge how each of 50 objects fit into a certain category—whether it belonged, did not belong, or only partially (somewhat) belonged. For example, is a cucumber a fruit? Is a horse a vehicle? After making each judgment, people reported how confident they were about their decision.
Men were more likely to see an object as fully belonging or not belonging to a category, while women more often judged that objects only partially belonged. The more intriguing finding, though, was that men and women were equally confident about their decisions. This means the gender difference was not due to men simply being more certain or women more uncertain about their judgments. Instead, it suggests men and women perceive the world differently.
This may happen for a couple of reasons. One possibility is that societal gender roles promote more absolute, black-and-white views in men and more detailed, complex views in women. Traditionally, cultures have rewarded males for being decisive and proactive, even if it means jumping to conclusions. In contrast, females are socialized to be more thoughtful and receptive to others’ views, even if it means being more self-critical. This socialization not only affects behavior and personality; it also colors our perceptions. For instance , women perceive greater risk across many real and hypothetical scenarios relative to men, partly because risk-taking is a central and esteemed component of the masculine gender role.
The inclination to make categorical judgments—along with a person’s comfort in making them—can have important implications. For one thing, it influences the types of professions people pursue, especially for jobs that require decisions to be made frequently and without hesitation.
Emergency medical workers—such as paramedics and emergency room doctors—need to look at a set of symptoms and diagnose a patient with a particular medical condition. Judges have to make decisions about the legality of evidence, testimony, objections raised, etc., throughout a trial. Managers and CEOs must be comfortable making definitive judgments over and over. All of these professions are heavily male-dominated, by about 2:1 in the U.S. Of course, there are many reasons for gender imbalances in occupations like these, and one might be the prospect of making all these decisions. At the same time, though, women’s more nuanced views are probably an asset in many settings, particularly when there is time to deliberate.
Let’s consider a second way to understand the gender difference in categorization. For this, imagine a simple study. People are shown 3 objects (e.g., seagull, squirrel, and tree) and asked to select the 2 they think should be grouped together. That is, they pick whichever 2 of the 3 things seem to “go together.” (These instructions are deliberately vague; nothing is mentioned about categorizing.)