A well-known argument about sex differences goes something like this: unlike men, women have hormones that fluctuate, and due to those hormone fluctuations they have emotions. These emotions are, generally, considered to be bad. That’s why we make memes about how emotional women are, and we make jokes about how a woman can never be president of the United States because her emotions would lead her to drop a nuclear bomb on a country for no good reason. Unlike…a man. And those jokes, of course, go on to reinforce our idea that women simply cannot be trusted in positions of authority.
These stereotypes also have an impact on our scientific research, since for decades women and female animals were excluded from biomedical studies due to a fear that female mammals are more “variable,” mostly thanks to those pesky hormones and whatnot. That means that a significant portion of our knowledge base doesn’t actually tell us about “human” nature, or “human” brains, but “male” nature, and “male brains.” Which in many cases may be quite important due to the fact that, yes, there actually are differences between men and women that can be significant in some cases. And that’s why researchers at University of Michigan wanted to look at whether or not it’s true that women are simply more emotional than men to the point that it’s worth controlling for their emotional swings in research environments.
Sure enough, in a study published this month in Scientific Reports, men and women were more alike than they were different in how their emotional states varied over the course of 75 days. So yeah, we’ve been discriminating against women in scientific research for no reason. I’m shocked!
By the way, I’m going to be talking a lot about “men” and “women” in this video so just to be clear and save time, I am always going to be referring to cis men and cis women, which is to say men who were assigned “male” at birth and identify as male as adults, and women who were assigned “female” at birth and identify as female as adults.
Okay, a few things to note about this study: for a start, it’s kind of a small sample size. There were 142 total participants, which isn’t bad, but only 30 were men. The other 112 were either women with regular menstrual cycles who were not on any oral contraceptives or women who were on any one of three different oral contraceptives, which they did because those pills do affect your hormones and so there’s a hypothesis that some oral contraceptives may help women regulate their emotions. So it’s not the biggest sample size, meaning that there’s a chance that there IS a difference between men and women but it’s so small that they didn’t have enough subjects to be able to notice it.
The other issue is that the subjects are WEIRD. Not, like, “weird” weird. They’re not out there eating candy corn and getting really into collecting their toenails in jars. They’re WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. This is one of those common issues we see in American and European studies where most of the subjects are just white college kids who show up for $15 or course credit.
Finally, there’s the issue of “how do you scientifically evaluate someone’s emotional state.” That’s a tough one, because you can take all kinds of measurements of a person’s sweat or pulse or brain scans but unfortunately the most accurate way to know how someone is feeling is just to…well, ask them, and give them no reason to want to lie. So the researchers had the subjects fill out a survey every evening before bed — that survey was the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), “which has been widely used in investigations of inter-individual variability and employed in recent investigations of intra-individual variability. Participants rated the extent to which they experienced 10 positive affect items (e.g., Happy, Proud) and 10 negative affect items (e.g., Irritable, Afraid) in the past 24 h on a 5-point scale (from 1 = “very slightly/not at all” to 5 = “extremely”). Daily composites were created by averaging across positive and negative affect items, respectively.”
And yeah, they found that men and women experienced a very similar array of emotions across the entire 75-day study, which would include at least two “regular” menstrual cycles. That may be surprising, because if we take that result on its face then does that mean that PMS itself is a myth? Because I have absolutely had weird crying jags that I later realized occurred right before my period. Was it a coincidence? Do hormones really just not affect emotions?
Well, no, that’s not what that means, necessarily. There are a few options if this study is true: maybe hormone fluctuations don’t really matter that much to your emotional state in the grand scheme of things, or maybe men experience hormonal shifts at about the same rate.
The idea of a “male menstrual cycle” has been around for decades — cis men don’t necessarily produce eggs that then need to be flushed out with their uterine lining, a very obvious, hard-to-miss clue that there’s a roughly 28-day cycle happening in your body. But contrary to popular belief (or maybe just, like, 4chan belief) men DO have hormones. Testosterone is the obvious one, but they also have estrogen and progesterone as well, just in smaller amounts, the same way that women tend to have testosterone in smaller amounts than men.
And while some people have argued that men’s hormones might ebb and flow on a monthly cycle akin to women, there’s not a ton of evidence for that. There is some evidence that it may change seasonally, but that evidence is spotty and difficult to replicate. A Baylor University meta-analysis done in 2013 found that “Current research suggests that while some evidence exists to support the notion of seasonal testosterone variations, the discussed inconsistencies preclude the incorporation of this concept into current clinical standards.” It’s tricky to figure out, especially due to other things that also chance seasonally and also affect hormone levels, like exercise and bodyweight changes.
However, what is an accepted fact is that men experience hormonal cycles that are fairly standard over the course of a single day. For the most part, men’s testosterone levels are highest when they first wake up and then those levels drop as the day goes on, reaching their nadir at night before bed. Lifestyle can greatly affect that trend, though, as those levels can change based on exercise, diet, sexual activity, or even stress.
So it’s certainly possible that women do get a little more emotionally volatile at a certain point every month or so, but that men get a little more emotionally volatile at a certain point every day or so, and in the end it all kind of evens out.
I would love to see this study replicated with more participants, because while we can guess that there really isn’t that much of a difference between men and women in terms of emotional regulation, we need more data to know if there is any difference at all.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that there are two aspects to our emotions — what we feel inside and how or if we express that feeling. Feminists have long argued that one way patriarchy harms men is in that we as a society mock and humiliate boys for expressing certain emotions, like sadness, fear, or even love, while allowing and sometimes even rewarding emotions like anger, or pride, or lust. We end up with men who, say, experience a loss thanks to happenstance and can’t just grieve. Say your mom dies of cancer — you can’t just be sad, you can’t just cry and try to move on — you have all these emotions and the only outlet that seems “appropriate” for you is anger. Punch a wall, shout at a doctor, kick a dog. None of it will help, but you haven’t been given the tools to react in a psychologically healthy way. Because punching the wall isn’t an “emotion.” Anger doesn’t count. Being horny doesn’t count. Being boastful about your accomplishments doesn’t count. Emotions are bad things, like crying. Emotions are for girls. Throwing the XBox controller through your TV is for boys.
Everybody loses in that situation. It’s bad for men, and it’s bad for women who have to deal with being the eventual target. I swear, as a woman who has dated a lot of men, even the “good ones” could have benefited from looking at a god damn feelings wheel every now and again in order to process what they’re feeling. Hell, I can benefit from that sometimes and I’m “allowed” to cry.
Hopefully this study is just one more step towards building a base of scientific knowledge that’s more accurate than what we currently have because it both acknowledges the actual potential differences between men and women while also doing away with stereotypes that artificially inflate those and other potential differences.