Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities

Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities

Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities

Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities


The fourth edition of Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities critically examines the breadth of research on this complex and controversial topic, with the principal aim of helping the reader to understand where sex differences are found - and where they are not.

Since the publication of the third edition, there have been many exciting and illuminating developments in our understanding of cognitive sex differences. Modern neuroscience has transformed our understanding of the mind and behavior in general, but particularly the way we think about cognitive sex differences. But neuroscience is still in its infancy and has often been misused to justify sex role stereotypes. There has also been the publication of many exaggerated and unreplicated claims regarding cognitive sex differences. Consequently, throughout the book there is recognition of the critical importance of good research; an amiable skepticism of the nature and strength of evidence behind any claim of sex difference; an appreciation of the complexity of the questions about cognitive sex differences; and the ability to see multiple sides of an issues, while also realizing that some claims are well-reasoned and supported by data and others are politicized pseudoscience. The author endeavors to present and interpret all the relevant data fairly, and in the process reveals how there are strong data for many different views.

The book explores sex differences from many angles and in many settings, including the effect of different abilities and levels of education on sex differences, pre-existing beliefs or stereotypes, culture, and hormones. Sex differences in the brain are explored along with the stern caveat to "mind the gap" between brain structures and behaviors. Readers should come away with a new understanding of the way nature and nurture work together to make us unique individuals while also creating similarities and differences that are often (but not always) tied to our being female and male.

Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, Fourth Edition,can be used as a textbook or reference in a range of courses and will inspire the next generation of researchers. Halpern engages readers in the big societal questions that are inherent in the controversial topic of whether, when , and how much males and females differ psychologically. It should be required reading for parents, teachers, and policy makers who want to know about the ways in which males and females are different and similar.


Surf through television channels, lurk on blogging sites, leaf through magazines, and peruse the scientific and scholarly journals—it won’t be long before you come across a joke, an outrage, or a serious discussion about the similarities and differences between men and women. The topic is probably as old as humankind and as new as this morning’s news. Yet, it continues to fascinate and confound us. Over the last four decades, observers noted that, “women have become the latest academic fad” (Westkott, 1979), the study of sex differences is a “national obsession” (Jacklin, 1989), and “articles describing the intellectual differences between the sexes have been altogether too commonplace” (Sheppard, 2006). One thing is certain: the number of publications on this topic has soared. If any readers doubt that comparisons between females and males has been a growth industry, enter sex differences or gender differences into any of the large databases in the social or biological sciences. A recent search in the mammoth database PsychINFO came up with over 86,000 entries with these terms. Of course, these numbers do not include searches in medical or biological databases, or ones that are primarily dedicated to education, sociology, or the other academic areas that are concerned with the ways in which men and women are similar and different.

But the topic of sex differences isn’t just “hot” in the sense of fashionable; it is, in fact, inflammatory. The answers we provide to questions like, “Which is the smarter sex?” or “Do girls have less mathematical ability than boys” or “Are boys unsuited for learning in traditional classrooms?” have implications for present and future societies. The questions are important, and no one is taking the answers lightly. Few areas of study engender as much controversy and acrimony as the questions about sex differences. The way we answer these questions will influence the way we live our lives and the way we govern society. It is my goal to change not only how you answer these questions, but how you ask them as well.

Perhaps the way we pose questions about sex differences contributes to the controversy and acrimony. Instead of assuming the perspective of which sex is better for a particular task or which sex has more of some hypothetical ability, there is a less polarizing approach to the many questions that society asks about the nonreproductive differences between men and women. The focus of the sex differences questions needs to change from “Who is better?” to “Where and when are meaningful differences found?” and “How can we use our findings to help all people achieve their maximum potential?”

It seems that it is not just psychologists and other researchers who are asking these questions. As shown in the next figure, even cartoon characters are wondering about the differences in the way males and females think.

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