My Sexless Brain


Sort-of kind-of via Lindsey (insofar as she first pointed me to the man behind this research, though she didn't point out this specific article or anything), The Guardian has a test that ostensibly determines whether you have a male brain or a female brain. Simon Baron-Cohen is a cognitive science researcher in England who has dedicated a large part of his career to trying to prove that there are innate biological differences between the brain of the human male and the brain of the human female. Some of the details of his work can be found here, in an article he wrote for The Guardian.

The crux of his theory is that you can rate people's patterns of thinking along two axes: The propensity for empathizing, and the propensity for systemizing. His theory is that, on average, women tend to be better than men at empathizing, and worse than men at systemizing. He has developed two tests (which you can take at the link above). One determines your Empathizing Quotient on a scale of 8 to 78, the other determines your Systemizing Quotient on a scale of -4 to 60 (I don't quite understand why the scales are the way they are). After extensive testing, he determined that the average EQ score for women was 47 and for men was 42. For the SQ, the female average was 24 and the male average was 30. Based on this evidence, he argues that there are two basic brain types: The female brain (good at empathizing, bad at systemizing) and the male brain (good at systemizing, bad at empathizing). There are also balanced brains (equally good at empathizing and systemizing), extreme male brains (extraordinary systemizers devoid of empathy), and extreme female brains (astoundingly emotional, but completely incapable of systemizing).

It is important to point out that he's not saying that all men have male brains and all women have female brains. His unfortunate decision to label the two brain types "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain" creates the impression that sex is far more determinative a factor than it seems to be; real people score all over the map, but if you take the average you find a slight difference on average. As an editorial aside, it seems as though he really, really wanted to find a difference between men and women going into the experiment, and when he got results that backed up his hypothesis he rolled out his pre-planned labels, which somewhat oversell the differences he actually discovered. If you take the tests, you will find that the 5-6 point difference is quite small. Amazingly small, in fact, considering the content of the test, which I will get to later.

The first major problem with the tests used here, which Baron-Cohen acknowledges but doesn't really address, is the problem of the poisoned sample. We know that using certain areas of your brain, particularly early in life, causes greater development of synapses in that area. Similarly, when you don't use areas of the brain, that area becomes underdeveloped. So it's very easy to reconcile the statement "The brains of male and female 20 year olds are different," with the statement "There is no inherent biological difference between male and female brains." If society pressures girls to care about emotions, girls will use the emotional parts of their brains more and will become women who are better empathizers. Likewise, if society pressures boys to systemize, boys will use those parts of their brain more and become men who are better systemizers. Baron-Cohen is working with a poisoned sample, so it's hard to take his conclusions too seriously.

The other big problem is that the tests themselves are pretty poorly made. The Empathy test is more a test of shyness. If you don't enjoy talking to people, you get a very low empathy score (I got 28, which, according to Baron-Cohen, is a hair above autistic). The Systemizer test is much worse; it's a test of whether you like Guy Things. I would argue that I'm a pretty systematic thinker. I love board games, I love rules. That's why I'm in law school. I scored a 17, which is very low. The reason is that the test asks a bunch of questions like "Are you good at do-it-yourself projects?" "Do you feel confident that you could fix a problem with your house's electrical system?" "If you were buying a car, would you like to know the precise engine capacity?" "Do you enjoy keeping track of sports statistics?" etc. Well, no to all of them, but that's because 1. I'm not handy, 2. I don't much care about electrical wiring, 3. I don't drive, and don't even know what an engine capacity is, and 4. I don't follow sports. I suppose he's using Liking Traditionally Male Hobbies as a proxy for Systematic Thinking, but that's the very definition of circular. "I think Men like to systemize. Therefore, hobbies men like should be systematic. Therefore, my test will determine how much you like traditionally male hobbies. My test found that men like traditionally male hobbies more than women do. Traditionally male hobbies are systematic, so men are more systematic thinkers than women are. QED."

I feel I should point out that Baron-Cohen has used this Empathizer-Systemizer paradigm as the basis for somewhat more credible research. It's detailed further down in this article. He's done some work with very young babies, 12-month-olds and newborns, who demonstrate differences in their patterns of attention based on their gender. I haven't investigated this research too much, but it seems to present more plausible evidence for his case than the other test.

Baron-Cohen does acknowledge the impact of society on sex roles, but he dismisses these arguments against his work with a hand-wave. He is merely trying to show that some biological differences exist, he argues, and he makes no claim as to how much biology accounts for perceived sex differences. Therefore: He accepts all claims of culture-derived sex differences. He'd be willing to acknowledge that 99.999% of sex differences come from culture. He's merely trying to show that some small amount, perhaps .001%, comes from biology.

I feel he makes this defense in bad faith. He writes popular books aimed at non-expert audiences trying to explain that sex differences are based in biology. He writes articles that start with discussions of all the differences in sex roles today, then segues into why biology accounts for sex differences. To a broad audience he implies that biology is the reason men and women behave differently. Then, when confronted by an expert, he concedes and backs off. "I didn't REALLY say that, you didn't parse my language closely enough. If you look carefully, I never said that biology was the only thing." Then he goes back to writing books for non-experts about the biological roots of sex differences.

Some of you may have noticed that I've been using the word "sex" to describe behavioral differences that are generally referred to by the term "gender." This use was intentional. Baron-Cohen is rather disdainful of the use of the term gender. He feels it's being used in place of the word "sex" when it shouldn't be. The segment of that article on the term gender is illustrative of what's maddening about Baron-Cohen: he treats the concept of malleable gender as worthy of disdain. He mocks it as a uniquely American rags-to-riches I-can-be-whatever-I-want-to-be thing. He thus implies that gender is pre-determined, set in stone at birth (probably by biology). But he never actually says it.

This, I think, is what annoys me about Baron-Cohen. He espouses beliefs he knows to be somewhat controversial in the field. Perhaps they're right, and perhaps not. But he has become an expert at making seemingly-strong claims about his findings in public that are delicately phrased such that, when confronted, he can weasel out of them, then afterwards go back to making further disingenuously strong claims to the public. If you're going to make yourself a public figure based on your controversial views, have the (you'll excuse the gendered term) balls to make your argument and fight for it.

Having said all this, I'd be interested in how my readers come out on Baron-Cohen's exes. I, apparently, have a Balanced Brain, because I am emotionally bankrupt and utterly un-systematic in my thinking. What're all your results?


I scored very similarly to you on the empathy test (25) but ridiculously high on the systemizing test (40). I am therefore Extremely Male, and possibly autistic.

I would argue that there's another problem with the systemizing test beside the one that you pointed out, that being that it asks a lot of questions along the lines of "are you curious about such-and-such?" Sure. I'm curious about just about everything as soon as someone mentions it. As soon as conversation moves on I will forget it utterly and never pursue it again, which is not a very systematic thing to do.

Also, the statement that "the extreme female brain has yet to be discovered" strikes me as interesting for two reasons. First, the nature of the systemizing test makes it so that, in order to score zero, you would basically have to be both very stupid and very apathetic. If that's the case, you're unlikely to score high on social grace, which is what the empathizing test is looking for. Second, in regard to the idea that essential femaleness (which isn't too good really) does not exist in its purified form, you might find it interesting to consult a 1903 article called "Sex and Character" by Otto Weininger. It is essentially an expansion on the Aristotelian idea that women have no soul, and the author pontificates at length about the vile characteristics of the essential woman while also asserting that in reality there is no such thing because, thank god, there is an element of the masculine in every woman and, unfortunately, an element of the feminine in every man.

Generally speaking, if you're running low on reasons to be irritated, Weininger's the man to help you with that. But he's fairly interesting in light of this current fellow.

True. As I was writing the description of the Extreme Male and Extreme Female above, it struck me that, without trying, I made the Extreme Male sound flawed-but-respectable (He lacks a conscience, but he's good at what he does and moves society forward) and the Extreme Female sound essentially irrelevant (She cares about everything; how gauche. And she can't get anything done). I think this is a major problem built into the categorization scheme Baron-Cohen has created.

A point I wanted to make in the post, and which might have gotten buried, is that the difference he discovers in this test is so small as to be laughable. When the range of scores that individual people get is so wide, and the difference between the Male Average and Female Average is about two questions on a 60 question quiz, the idea of using this slight difference to posit a Male and Female Brain seems pretty silly. Particularly since this is a minimal distinction even after accounting for the fact that the test doesn't distinguish culturally-created differences from biological differences, and for the fact that the tests themselves seem poorly constructed.

Frankly, reading these test results led me to reach a conclusion opposite Baron-Cohen's. With massive socialization telling the sexes to act in accordance with gender norms, a test designed to get women to score one way and men to score another produced results where men and women averaged astoundingly similar scores. This makes me think much less of the hypothesis that men and women have biologically different brains.

Do you agree on my characterization of Baron-Cohen's rhetoric? I worry that I'm not being fair. That is, I feel it would be wrong to say that scientific evidence of biological difference MUST be wrong because it differs with my beliefs; that's twisting facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. The defense he gives, that he's just trying to show that there is some biological difference, not that biology is THE difference, seems reasonable and acceptable. But I also feel that he makes very strong claims in the introductory and rhetorical parts of his writing that don't match up to the weak claims left once he brings out these defenses.

I really enjoyed your analysis of Baron-Cohen's test. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the test, so I decided to take it myself to see what the results turned out to be.

I was surprised. According to the test, I scored extremely high on Empathy and extremely low on the Systematic portion.

If Baron-Cohen's test was based solely on gender, I would be female.

An interesting website I found deals with EQ/SQ from a career perspective, rather than a gender one. You might find it a nice read. Here's the link:

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on February 1, 2006 2:29 PM.

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