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Women More Likely Than Men to See Nuance When Making Decisions

Men and women differ in how they categorize the world



iStock/eli asenova

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.)

People who choose seagull-squirrel are assumed to be thinking about the objects in terms of their categories (these were the two animals). But other people select squirrel-tree as their two items, which ignores categories and instead groups the objects based on their relation to one another in a particular context (squirrels are often in trees).

These are very distinct approaches to understanding things in our environment. The first approach uses categories to make inferences about an object’s characteristics. For example, say you’re trying to figure out what your new boss is like. Apart from knowing your boss’s gender and occupation, someone has also told you his marital status (he’s married) and his religion (Protestant). Knowing he falls into these categories enables you to make abstract generalizations—using the stereotypes of those groups—about what he might be like as your boss. The information you get from these generalizations, though, is inherently abstract.

The other way to understand him is by focusing on his relationship to other things. For instance, maybe you know that he’s a close friend of your previous boss, and though you’ve heard he’s very committed in his marriage, he’s not very loyal to the company you both work for. Unlike the stereotypical information, these relationships are limited to a particular context (his friendships, his love life) and don’t generalize as well to other situations (how he behaves toward his employees). What you know about him is context-specific.

Research finds that men engage in more abstract thinking about many topics—using categories, generalizations—while women are more disposed to context-specific thinking—in terms of concrete situations and relationships. This is evident, for one thing, in how some psychologistscontrast the moral reasoning of males and females. Males’ moral judgments tend to be governed by abstract principles of justice, duty, and fairness that apply to all people and situations (e.g., whether a law is broken, whether justice is served). Females’ moral judgments give more weight to specific relationships between people and extenuating circumstances in a given situation; moral judgments are made through subjective feelings (e.g., whether someone feels betrayed or harmed) rather than abstract principles.

Of course, all of these descriptions vastly oversimplify gender differences and make them appear extreme. In reality, most can be characterized as “small but consistent” differences between males and females.

In any case, men seem to be more comfortable in the black-and-white world of categorical thinking. This offers a different perspective on why men are not just overrepresented in many leadership positions, but also usually aspire to these positions more strongly than women. The prospect of making repeated categorical judgments may deter women from these positions more than, say, a lack of confidence, an aversion to hierarchies or competitive environments, discomfort working in a male-dominated field, or fear of discrimination.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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