Social Psychology

People are more accepting of research that uncovers sex differences that favor women

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Most people assume that men and women are more accepting of sex differences that favor their own sex. But, according to new research, both men and women tend to react less positively to scientific findings that show men outperforming women.

The new study appears in the British Journal of Psychology.

“A lot of my writing and research has been about the evolution of human sex differences, so I’m very aware of the many controversies sparked by claims about sex differences over the years,” said study author Steve Stewart-Williams (@SteveStuWill), an associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

“One thing I’ve noticed – I’m sure lots of people have – is that the controversies almost always center on claims that put men in a better light than women, rather than the reverse. This is maybe not too surprising given our long history of sexism against women, and given research in social psychology suggesting that people often hold more positive stereotypes of women, are more concerned about harms to women, and are more protective of women than men.”

“But although it seemed fairly obvious to me that people are less comfortable with male- than female-favoring sex differences, I realized that a lot of people think it’s the other way around: that people are more likely to accept male-favoring differences – or that everyone prefers differences that favor their own sex. So, it looked to me like the world was one way, but a lot of people were adamant it was another. That’s what initially sparked my interest in the topic.”

In the study, 492 participants — most of whom resided in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada — were asked to carefully read a (fake) popular-science article that reported on a sex difference in either drawing ability or lying frequency. One version of each article claimed that men had outperformed women, while another version claimed that women had outperformed men.

After reading the article, the participants completed a questionnaire to gauge their attitudes about the findings. They also indicated how they thought the average man and woman would respond to the scientific research.

Stewart-Williams and his colleagues found that both sexes reacted less positively when the article reported on male-favoring differences compared to when it reported on female-favoring differences.

“The paper has two main takeaways. The first is that, as we suspected, people react less positively to sex differences that favor males than to those that favor females. For example, people view hypothetical research claiming that men draw better or lie less than women as more offensive, harmful, and upsetting than hypothetical research making the equal-but-opposite claims. They also view the male-favoring claims as less important and less plausible,” Stewart-Williams told PsyPost.

“The second takeaway is that people are very bad at predicting how the average man and woman will react to such research. Specifically, they predict that both sexes will strongly prefer differences that favor their own sex, when in fact women only moderately prefer own-sex favoring differences and men moderately prefer differences favoring women.”

The researchers replicated virtually all findings in a second study with 336 participants from Southeast Asia. The only difference they observed was that Southeast Asian participants tended to have slightly more positive reaction to the research compared to the Western participants.

“One possible implication of these findings is that research investigating male-favoring sex differences may have a somewhat harder time getting funded, published, or covered in the mainstream media. In some ways, this might be a good thing; we don’t want to accidentally bolster sexist stereotypes,” Stewart-Williams said.

“On the other hand, to the extent that the tendency distorts the science of sex differences, it could make it harder to target interventions appropriately. So, although it comes from a desire to protect women, it’s not necessarily in women’s best interests. An accurate view of things is our best bet for making the world a better place.”

“A second implication is that people vastly overestimate the extent to which men and women are prone to own-sex bias. It seems unlikely that this would foster harmonious relations between the sexes. As such, a more accurate view of the situation could help quell antagonisms between men and women, with obvious benefits for all involved. Again, an accurate view is our best bet,” Stewart-Williams added.

As with all research, the study includes some limitations. Both samples were more politically left-leaning, more educated and less religious than the population at large, which could have influenced the results. But the researchers have recently finished three more studies that replicated the findings. The new research is undergoing scientific review prior to publication.

“Our new studies have also addressed various other questions. One is whether people’s reactions to research on sex differences are shaped in part by the sex of the lead researcher. The good news is that, contrary to what many would expect, we found no evidence that people react less positively to research led by a female researcher than a male,” Stewart-Williams said.

“We did find tentative evidence, though, that people react less positively to research led by a male if the research finds a male-favoring difference in a highly valued trait. So, male-favoring research is bad at the best of times, but it may be even worse when it comes from a male researcher.

“Another question we’re investigating is why people react less positively to male- than female-favoring sex differences. Our most recent study suggests that it’s almost entirely because male-favoring differences are seen as more harmful to women than female-favoring differences are to men. We’ve also found that people’s perceptions of the harmfulness of the research help shape their perceptions of its quality – almost as if people are thinking ‘The findings are harmful; therefore, the study was poorly done,'” Stewart-Williams explained.

The researchers have pre-registered their study designs in advance, which commits them to publish the findings regardless of whether the data supports their hypotheses. “We’re really making a point of reporting all our results: those that support our hypotheses and those that don’t,” Stewart-Williams said.

“We recently received a large grant to continue our work on this topic, so we should be learning a lot more over the next few years about how people react to research on sex differences – and more generally, about how people think about women and men.”

The study, “Reactions to male‐favouring versus female‐favouring sex differences: A pre‐registered experiment and Southeast Asian replication“, was authored by Steve Stewart‐Williams, Chern Yi Marybeth Chang, Xiu Ling Wong, Jesse D. Blackburn, and Andrew G. Thomas.