Gender and Brains: Be Cautious When Connecting Differences to Behavior

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, June 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Gender and Brains: Be Cautious When Connecting Differences to Behavior


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


Another week, another statement from a politician that brings into question his scientific literacy.

This time the statement comes from the leader of the Republicans in Maine's House of Representatives, state Rep. Kenneth Fredette. Last week, after his colleague, state Rep. Linda Sanborn, a Democrat and retired family physician, argued in favor of federal funding for Medicaid expansion, Fredette stood up on the floor of the Maine legislature to speak against it.

And that's when he put his foot firmly in his mouth. Fredette apparently believes that the male and female brains are so different that when women hear about policies like Medicaid expansion, their ditsy neurological response is to think, "Free! Free!" while the much more mature and responsible male brain thinks, "Oh, my gosh, how are we going to pay for this?"

Here are Fredette's very own words:

As I listen to the debate today and earlier debate on this bill, I can't help but think of a title of a book, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." And it's a book about the fact that men sort of think one way in their own brain, in their own world. And women think another way in their brain and in their own world. And it really talks about the way that men and women can do a better job at communicating.

Because if you listen to the debate today, in my mind -- a man's mind -- I hear really two fundamental issues. From the other side of the aisle, I hear the conversation being about: free. 'This is free, we need to take it, and it's free. And we need to do it now.' And that's sort of the fundamental message that my brain receives. Now, my brain, being a man's brain, sort of thinks differently, because I say, well, it's not -- if it's free, is it really free? Because I say, in my brain, there's a cost to this."

Now, obviously, the idea that women never bother their pretty little heads with things like the cost of health insurance is just plain idiotic. In fact, on this particular issue, those female brains Fredette seems to be disparaging actually have it right: Even the very conservative Heritage Foundation has (reluctantly) acknowledged that accepting federal health care funding for Medicaid expansion will save Maine a bundle of money.

But that issue aside, Fredette's comments offer a helpful "teaching moment" on the subject of gender brain differences. For as British psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett noted in his "Brain Myths" blog for Psychology Today last year, while there are important sex-related brain differences (males, for example, are more likely to be autistic), we should be cautious about how we interpret those differences, particularly when it comes to behavior.

Yes, scientists have found that men's brains are, on average, larger than those of women, writes Jarrett. …

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