Sex and Emotions

Not that sex! Sex as in woman and man, and the question “are women more emotional than men?” Conventional wisdom, pan cultural stereotypes, and readily available examples, all tell us that women are more emotional than men. But are they? Women score higher than men on neuroticism trait scales, which ask respondents about their tendency to experience negative emotions “in general”. But, studies that assess the actual experience of negative emotions, such as distress, frustration, anger, sadness, etc., in response to actual situations, such as crises, setbacks, goal blockages, etc., find no differences between men and women.

Why would men and women report different levels of emotionality when reflecting on the frequency of experiences over some unspecified periods and situations in the past, but report the same levels when reporting on their experiences of emotions as they occur in response to a specific situation? Which is the most accurate?

Imagine you were asked to record the number of times you felt frustrated over a period of 6 weeks, under one of two measurement techniques. Under the first measurement technique, you were provided with a wrist band that recorded each frustration event when it happened, thus providing a measure of the frequency of your feelings over the 6 weeks. Under the second measurement technique, you were in a training program and you were asked to report “how frustrated in general you have felt over the past 6 weeks?” Which do you think would be the most accurate measure of the frequency of your feelings of frustration?

Most of us would agree that the actual record of frustration experiences is going to provide a more accurate representation of your frustration than the questionnaire, which mimics a typical trait measure. The different results for the two measures is a result of several sources of bias in the trait measure, including recent events, peak events and stereotypes. These same biases are at play when we address the question “are women more emotional than men?”

Judgements of emotions draw on two sources of information and the relative influence of each swill depend upon the framing and timing of the judgement. The first is knowledge of the actual experience of an emotion as it occurs or shortly after. This knowledge includes sensations of the emotional arousal, but that fades very quickly, and the aspects of the situation associated with the emotion, which lasts longer. The closer to the experience of an emotion that a person records it and if they are asked “how frustrated do you feel now?”, the more the response reflects the actual emotional experience. When this knowledge is tapped, women and men do not differ in assessments of their experience of negative emotions.

The second source of information that influences judgements about emotional experiences is knowledge stored in long term memory, which includes stereotypes of the type of person being judged, woman or man. Stereotypes influence our judgements when completing trait measures such as trait emotionality (neuroticism). We are more likely to recall events that match the stereotype. For women that is expressions of emotions, for men it is being in emotional control. As a result, we overestimate the frequency of emotional events for women and underestimate them for men. Not just other men and women, ourselves also. This is self-stereotyping. It is one of the reasons women may doubt their capabilities or believe that they lack the emotional control for a role.

When summary assessments like personality trait measures of neuroticism are used in selection processes they institutionalise the stereotypes and unconscious biases that disadvantage women. Challenge your first impressions and assumptions, and focus on actual experiences when conducting assessments. That will give you a more accurate picture of the person.

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