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Gender Time

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Girls are girly and boys run in packs? This statement by TIME magazine tells us more about them than anything else.

Brett Berk: This week, TIME magazine ran a story titled Why Girls Have BFFs and Boys Hang Out in Packs, about a recent National Institute of Mental Health study that they say shows a marked difference between the brains of 8- to 17-year-old boys and girls in their responses to social situations.

Teenage girls
The study itself is almost too complicated to go into here, but involved showing 34 kids photos of 40 other kids (who were actually actors), asking them to rate how much they might want to be friends with them (on a scale of 1-100), telling them that the fake kids would do the same (which they didn't), and luring them back a few weeks later with the ruse of online chats (that never happened) with the kids in the photos (who didn't exist), then strapping them to an fMRI scanner to see what parts of their brains fired when they looked at the photos of the fake kids. The results? Well, TIME presents them this way: "girls are hardwired to care about one-on-one relationships with their BFFs (best friends forever), while the brains of boys are more attuned to group dynamics and competition with other boys."

But if you read the article more carefully, TIME's argument becomes muddier. As a matter of fact, it becomes obscured to the point of nonexistence. TIME's interpretation of the findings tell us more about them than anything else. They suggest that this whole thing demonstrates that girls are frivolous and social (the article opens with this line: "Pardon the sexism, but a question: Why are girls so girly?"), and that boys are directed and focused, "programmed to compete within large groups, so they can learn to eliminate rivals for women," and that they're thus unfeeling "cads because they're not wired to be any other way." The scientists themselves draw no such conclusions. NIMH neuroscientist Daniel Pine says, "There are many different possible explanations."

The article also fails to address one of the core issues I have with this kind of brain research: that it studies how people's (in this case, tweens' and teens') brains function after years of socialization and, particularly in this case, after years of exposure to traditional gender roles -- gender being the most powerful and pervasive lens through which kids are taught from birth to view the world. We all know that the brain is adaptable, and that most neural pathways are created rather than inherent. So why neglect to mention that fifteen years of being taught to behave in a certain way might impact on what areas of the brain light up in a few "psychiatrically healthy" girls or boys when they're strapped to an fMRI? Moreover, besides the fact that this entire study is based on research with only 34 children -- one or two boys and girls from each of the tested ages -- there's no mention of what the criteria were for selecting these kids for the study. It's possible that they were chosen in part for the way they reflect gender norms -- sporty, competitive boys, and chatty, social girls -- as this is a major indicator of what is considered "psychiatrically healthy" -- thus proving nothing but a circular argument.

My point here isn't that there aren't real differences between males and females. There may very well be. My point is that we should be vigilant in analyzing any report that claims to suggest that this SOLELY inborn, or is true for EVERY SINGLE PERSON. In my twenty years of working with kids, from preschoolers through teens, I find them to be much more complex beings than that.

70 comments so far | Post a comment now
Stephanie July 22, 2009, 8:11 AM

I am curious what the words used in the study were. Were gender and behavior causally linked? Or were they described as being correlated with one another. As was drilled into my consciousness in university - Correlation DOES NOT equal causation.

This is a thoughtfully written article. Thanks!!

Jean Rubinson July 22, 2009, 10:28 AM

I’m with you, Brett.Shame on the Times for it’s article. The most important point of all is, don’t let some stupid article define anyone. We ARE all individuals, especially as we do our growing up. Thanks to our brain capacity, we lose some of the foolish social ideas we were given to feel we must adopt in our childhood.That’s what intelligence is all about.Keep up the good work.

Dana July 22, 2009, 10:31 AM

Hear, hear, Brett. Seems like a very limited study indeed. I will say that as a mother, I was surprised at some of the gender differences I observed when my son was too young to have been socialized into them—like the fact that girls seem to pick up verbal skills earlier, and potty train earlier. Having said that, though, I think society does magnify biological differences and adds ridiculous ones of its own.

Jill July 22, 2009, 11:08 AM

Great job, Brett. Any article that begins with “Pardon the sexism…” deserves a dressing down.

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