Gender Wars: The Rationale Behind Emotion

He doesn't listen.  She talks too much. He's only interested in looks. She's only interested in money. He doesn't talk about his feelings. She won't stop talking about her feelings.

Women: "Men just don't get it."

Men: "Women are crazy."

What is emotion regulation.

Sweeping generalizations about men and women such as this germinate out of behavioral differences between the two genders.  These differences affect thinking, perceiving, feeling, responding, loving and appreciating. Taken together, they are the constructs of emotion regulation.

Emotion regulation refers to a person's ability to regulate one's own and other's emotional states and is regarded as a crucial component of emotion intelligence

In numerous self-report studies thus far, men have scored higher than women in this area.

  • Amelang and Steinmayr (2006) - males had higher mood repair scores
  • Kong, Zhao and You (2012) - males scored higher in emotion regulation ability
  • Mikolajczak, Luminet, Leroy and Roy (2007) - males had higher self control
  • Brown, Kircaldy and Thomé (2000) - males scored higher in stress tolerance and impulse control

It should be noted however, that different measurement scales were used for each of the studies, resulting in inconsistent results.

Differences could be explained by Baron-Cohen's 2002 theory "extreme male brain theory of autism." According to this theory,

the masculine brain predominantly seeks to understand and construct systems (i.e., "systemize"), whereas the feminine brain is predominantly structured to feel empathy (i.e., "empathize").

In other words, men like to visualize and fix problems, while women like to feel out the problem, and perhaps have a good cry about it. Why such a huge difference? Fortunately, a groundbreaking 2014 study out of Beijing, China uses MRI to shed light on why women would rather just talk/cry/eat about the problem before fixing it. 

Sex differences.

(a) Emotion perception: as a number of studies did not assess discrete emotions, there is evidence only for the perception of emotional stimuli in general. (b) Emotion reactivity: although males and females appear to recruit similar neural circuitry, there appear to be sex differences in activation dependent on the discrete category of emotional stimulus (positive versus dominant negative versus submissive negative). (c) Emotion experience: it appears that males and females may activate similar neural circuitry during the experience of emotions. (d) Emotion regulation: there appears to be a neural basis for more efficient regulation of negative emotion in males.

Above, a simplified summary of sex differences in the neural correlates of emotional processing based on a 2011 review.

The 2014 study built on this information, and investigated the structural difference between the male and female brain in these particular regions and its correlation to a Regulation of Emotion (ROE) scale (“I am quite capable of recovering from psychological stress; I can always calm down quickly when I am very angry.”)

What they found might explain why women think men are too rigid and in turn, why men believe women to be too emotional. Volumetric analyses (how much grey matter is present) revealed males relying more on the right DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and females relying more on the limbic regions including the left hippocampus, the left amygdala and the insular cortex. In other words, when it comes to emotion regulation – men and women travel completely different roads on the neural expressway (probably because the man did not stop to ask for directions).

Let’s take a look at these brain regions in detail. 

A: The right DLPFC, where the interaction between sex and emotion regulation ability was found. B: The anatomical cluster that encompasses to the left hippocampus, left amygdala, and insular cortex - where the interaction between sex and emotion regulation ability was found in females.

How Males Think.

Using the DLPFC which is plays a critical role in cognitive control, working memory, response selection.  It is supposed that given its role, males use the DLPFC to rationalize and detach from a stressful situation.

How Females Think.

The hippocampus, left amygdala and insular cortex are all implicated in emotional processes. The hippocampus remembers when something is a threat. The insular cortex integrates all senses together, and is involved in the experience of emotional processing and sexual memory. The amygdala is a central subcortical structure needed for emotional processing. Females clearly use emotion-based coping strategies when faced with stress.

Implications.

Given the prevalence of emotional disorders in women, it is imperative that research of this nature continues.  Further, it can be expanded to include neuropeptides and hormones which have yet to fit into the emotion puzzle of our ever-fascinating cortex.

For a humorous look at how male and female brains interact, watch Rusell Peters below.

ResearchBlogging.org Kong, F., Zhen, Z., Li, J., Huang, L., Wang, X., Song, Y., & Liu, J. (2014). Sex-Related Neuroanatomical Basis of Emotion Regulation Ability PLoS ONE, 9 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0097071
Kong F., Jingguang Li, Lijie Huang, Xu Wang, Yiying Song & Jia Liu (2014). Sex-Related Neuroanatomical Basis of Emotion Regulation Ability, PLoS ONE, 9 (5) e97071. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0097071