New research published in the academic journal Emotionexamined this topic in the context of emotion recognition. First, the research team asked both men and women to evaluate a series of photos. Each photo contained an individual expressing one of five basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, or sadness). Participants were asked to identify the emotion each photo conveyed.
What did they find? For one, they note that some emotions are better recognized than others. Here is a rank order of the accuracy with which people identified the five emotions tested:
- Happiness (Most accurate)
- Disgust (Least accurate)
As for gender differences, the researchers found more parity than they expected. There was, for instance, no clear accuracy advantage for women, as might have been hypothesized. They did, however, show some interesting nuances:
- Women were significantly better at identifying disgust and sadness.
- Men were significantly better at identifying happiness.
Two follow-up studies replicated these results using slightly different methodologies.
What is to be made of these results? While conventional wisdom might have led one to expect bigger gender differences in emotion recognition, this research suggests that it might be time to recalibrate preconceived notions. The authors write:
“Why do our findings diverge from what might be thought of as conventional wisdom, i.e., that there is an overall sex difference in emotion recognition? One possible explanation is that of publication bias in this field. This account is supported by a recent meta-analysis of sex differences in emotion recognition ability that reported evidence for an excess of significant findings in the literature (Thompson & Voyer, 2014). For the field to move towards a consensus state, this suggests a need for strongly powered confirmatory studies with pre-registered experimental protocols.”
Even if past literature has overstated gender differences, as the researchers suggest, the current research still finds significant differences between the groups. These, they hypothesize, might best be explained through the lens of evolutionary theory. Because women are the child-bearing gender, they may have a heightened sensitivity to potential contaminants in their environment and might, therefore, be more likely to identify signals of disgust. Conversely, men may show less disgust sensitivity as a way to emphasize their strength and virility.
Whatever the reason, for your next cocktail party, perhaps let the women be the judge of what’s unappetizing and let the men decide who had a good time.