How Men Work

The hormone testosterone doesn't always have the best reputation. Learn why and find out about the difference between men's and women's brains. See more football pictures.
Image courtesy Philadelphia Eagles

As hormones go, testosterone doesn't always have the best reputation. It's a key ingredient in most anabolic steroids, which can lead to aggression and infertility. A 2006 study showed that too much of it can kill brain cells [Source: CNN]. And some women hold it accountable for just about any stereotypically masculine behavior, from a love of sports to a reluctance to ask for directions.

But without testosterone, no one would ever grow into a male body. Until about the eighth week of gestation, males and females are identical. Then, a surge of testosterone causes male fetuses to develop male sex organs -- without this wave of testosterone, a male's sex organs will never develop.


As he grows, testosterone continues to play an important part in his physical development. When he's a teenager, the hormone's presence causes him to develop masculine secondary sex characteristics, such as facial and body hair and a deeper voice. Testosterone also encourages his adult body to be taller and heavier than a woman's, with broader shoulders and less subcutaneous fat. In other words, testosterone plays a big part in making a male body physically different from a female one.

But the influence of testosterone doesn't stop with outward appearance. It also affects the brain. Researchers theorize that the same wave of testosterone that affects males in the womb also causes men's brains to be different from women's brains. Men and women are equally intelligent, and their brains are the same size compared to the rest of their bodies. But male and female brains have different proportions of gray and white matter. Men have more gray matter and less white matter than women do [Source: LiveScience].

Gray matter contains the brain's processing centers, and white matter creates networks between areas of gray matter. In other words, men's brains have more areas in which to process data, and women's brains have more networks between processing centers. Some researchers believe this supports the common stereotype that men are better at science and math while women are better at language. It appears that men's brains are set up to process concrete data, while women's brains are wired for making connections.

But, according to many studies, this stereotype isn't true at all. Although men and boys usually score better on standardized math tests, women and girls usually make better grades in math [Source: Psychology Today]. After performing a meta-analysis of data from lots of studies, some researchers now believe that the differences in men and women's abilities in math and language are so slight that they're insignificant [Source: Economist].

The idea that men are better at math and science than women are is one of many stereotypes that doesn't hold up well under scientific scrutiny. In this article, we'll explore whether other common perceptions about men are accurate.


Men and Masculinity

According to recent surveys, the stereotype that most men are sports fans is accurate, especially for men between the ages of 18 and 29.
Image courtesy Stockxpert

Some stereotypes of masculine behavior seem to be true for a lot of men. For example, according to a Scripps News survey, twice as many men prefer to drink beer as prefer to drink wine. In addition, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, three quarters of men describe themselves as sports fans, although the numbers decrease with age. Seventy-two percent of men between the ages of 18 and 29 are sports fans, but only 58 percent of men age 50 and older describe themselves the same way. So the stereotype that men like to drink beer and watch sports seems to reflect the preference of the majority of American men.

But not all stereotypes are rooted in camaraderie and recreation. If you believe what you see on TV, in addition to liking beer and football, men are aggressive, competitive, violent and jealous. They're good with power tools, but inept when it comes to doing housework or caring for children. This isn't a very flattering portrayal, and it's not necessarily accurate. Some of these stereotypes are debatable or entirely wrong. Here's what we found when we looked into several traits commonly ascribed to men.


Are men jealous of sexual infidelity?

One common belief is that men are more jealous of sexual infidelity than of emotional infidelity, and women are the opposite. Researchers have theorized that this stems from primitive mankind's need to ensure its survival. If a woman were sexually unfaithful, a man might be less likely to father children with her. But if a man were emotionally unfaithful, a woman might lose his support in raising their offspring.

This idea seems fairly logical, but studies of jealousy have returned conflicting results. In one German study, researchers showed participants images of several scenarios. The participants used a computer to describe which of the scenarios would be more upsetting. The results suggest that, across cultures, women find emotional infidelity more upsetting than sexual infidelity. Men's responses varied across cultures, but in general they were jealous of sexual infidelity [Source: Human Nature].

On the other hand, a study at the University of California at San Diego measured participants' blood pressure and heart rate rather than asking them to describe their responses. Men had greater physical reactions to physical infidelity, while woman reacted with about the same intensity to both scenarios [Source: Psychology Today].

­Are men angrie­r and more aggressive than women?

According to a 2001 Gallup poll, Americans view women as emotional and affectionate while viewing men as aggressive and courageous. Some researchers have used this perception to explain why more men than women hold powerful managerial positions in many corporations [Source: NBER]. In some ways, a male-dominated management structure is ironic, though, since other studies credit women with generally better leadership skills [Source: Sappenfield].

But studies don't entirely support the idea that men are angrier, more aggressive or more competitive than women are. Instead, men and women differ in how they express these traits [Source: Tavris]. For example, according to a 2004 study at Florida State University, men and women have the same number of angry thoughts. Women tend to have longer, more intense periods of anger. Another study reported that women were more likely to get revenge through subversive methods, like gossip. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to take a direct approach and confront the person who had made them angry [Source: Economist].

In addition, how men and women compete with others or react in the face of anger seems to depend more on power than on gender. Regardless of gender, people tend to respond more directly and aggressively to people who are weaker than they are. People tend to be more subversive in expressing their anger when they are dealing with someone who is in a more powerful position [Source: Tavris].

Next, we'll look at some questions about communication and intelligence.


Men: Talking and Learning

Some researchers believe that men are falling behind women in school, but opinions on why this might be or whether it's true at all differ.
Image courtesy Stock.xchng

In school, children often argue about who is smarter or better -- boys or girls. Plenty of schoolyard rhymes spell out one sex's superiority over the other. There's even a book for girls that advises, "Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them."

The argument about which sex is better doesn't stop at the playground. Teachers, doctors, psychologists and others continue to research the similarities and differences between how men and women learn, communicate and behave. Often, studies document ways in which the sexes do things differently rather than ways in which one is better than the other. Two common points of contention are how people communicate and how people learn.


Are men really falling behind women in school?

If you believe the headlines, boys are having trouble in school. Some researchers say that classrooms are set up to reward girls, who tend to be quieter and more able to sit still for longer periods. Others blame the rise in conditions like attention deficit disorder (ADD), which are more prevalent among boys. Experts have even suggested separate schools for boys. However, according to a 2006 Washington Post article, boys as a whole aren't falling.

Researchers have also taken a look at how many young men go to -- and finish -- college. Currently, only 44 percent of college graduates are men, and that number could drop to 42 percent by the end of the decade [Source: Clayton]. In other words, women outnumber men at many schools, and there are more women than men with four-year degrees. This trend in admissions has cause some colleges to try to recruit more men to keep a balance between the genders in their classrooms.

However, research shows that this trend isn't related to fewer men deciding to go to college. About 60 percent of men apply to and enter a two- or four-year college directly after high school. This number has been increasing steadily since 1980. In the same time period, the number of men who receive a bachelor's degree has held steady at approximately 25 percent [Source: Stepp].

Women, on the other hand, have been attending college in increasing numbers. In 1980, about half of women went to college. Now, about 70 percent of women do, and about 29 percent of women have a bachelor's degree [Source: Stepp]. In other words, men have not become less likely to go to college; women have become more likely to do so.

Do men and women communicate differently?

According to self-help books and some relationship counselors, men and women communicate so differently that they might as well be from different planets. This theory states that women have vastly bigger vocabularies than men do, and they use it more fluently. Men, on the other hand, don't like to talk about feelings, and they especially don't like to give the kind of comfort women like to receive in a crisis. Rather than offering support for another person's feelings, men are allegedly dismissive and prefer to gloss over problems.

­ There's a lot of contradictory information about whether any of this is true. Some articles claim that women are more fluent than men. One common statistic is that women use 7,000 words per day while men use only 2,000. However, these articles often don't cite sources for their numbers [Source: Boston Globe]. Other research suggests that women use language to build relationships, while men use activity to do the same thing. This could explain the perception that women are generally more talkative than men. Finally, one study shows that men don't necessarily respond dismissively to others' problems, but they are likely to be judged more harshly if they do.

Research suggests that there are some differences in how men and women process and use language. However, some reports go on to say that the scores being analyzed showed more common ground than divergence. So, while there can be some disparity in how men and women express themselves, it may be too minor to make much of a difference.

Some male stereotypes relate to or stem from men's brains and bodies, or even their DNA. We'll look at male neurology and physiology next.


Men's Cells and Bodies

A karyotype, or chromosome "map," for a typical human male
Image courtesy National Human Genome Resource Institute

In spite of being, on average, bigger and generally stronger than women, men generally don't live as long. This is true all over the world, not just in Western countries. Some researchers theorize that this is in part due to physiological differences between men and women. It may also be related to the way men and women approach relationships. Women tend to build strong support networks that they can turn to for assistance during crises. This network may help them to live longer lives [Source: Psychology Today].

In addition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), three times as many men as women die in car accidents, and two times as many men drown. Male pedestrians are also more likely to die after being struck by cars. The WHO attributes this to men being more likely to take risks than women are [Source: WHO].


­The differences between men and women go beyond what you can see. Male and female bodies are different at the cellular level. Inside every cell of your body is DNA, which is like an instruction manual for all of your body's structures and functions. A typical human's DNA is contained in 23 pairs of chromosomes. The twenty-third chromosomal pair determines whether your body is male or a female. Except in the case of rare anomalies, females' cells have two X chromosomes, and males' cells ahve one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. You can read more about these chromosomes and how they determine a person's sex in How Sex Works.

One of the jokes that women sometimes make at the expense of men is that a Y chromosome is really a broken X. If you look at images of X and Y chromosomes, you can see how someone might come to this conclusion. A Y chromosome is a fraction of the size of an X -- it's the smallest of all the chromosomes in the human body. Its shape vaguely suggests that it's an X that has been stepped on or otherwise mishandled.

In the past, genetic research seemed to support the idea that Y chromosomes paled in comparison to Xs, at least in part. Y chromosomes contain less than 100 genes, while X chromosomes contain more than 1,000 [Source: Psychology Today]. Sometimes, genes from a man's X chromosome replace similar genes on his Y chromosome, which led scientists to fear that the Y might become completely obsolete. Scientists also believed that the Y chromosome was shrinking and would disappear from human cells in the next 5 million years.

However, recent studies suggest that the Y chromosome isn't going anywhere and that it still carries important information in the human genome. It probably started out looking more like an X, but that was around 300 million years ago, when sex chromosomes first appeared in human cells [Source: ABC Online] Since then, the Y has gotten smaller as some of the genes it shares with the X have disappeared.

But several genes, particularly those related to sperm production and other physiologically masculine traits, reside only on the Y chromosome, not on the X. A gene known as the sex-determining region of the Y chromosome (SRY), for example, starts the cascade of testosterone that makes male fetuses different from females.

The Y chromosome includes a gene that relates to the brain, although scientists haven't determined precisely what this gene does. The Y also contains copies of some of its more important genes, since unlike an X it can't simply replace faulty genes by borrowing some from its neighbor [Source: BBC]. According to Steve Rozen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Y chromosome will probably continue to survive for at least 50 or 60 million years [Source: Psychology Today].

Scientists are still discovering how the differences between the DNA of men and women affect their physiology. You can learn more about these differences and other gender-related topics by following the links in the next section.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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