Gender Brain Differences May Explain Why Women Are Kinder Than Men

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Understanding gender differences in the brains of men and women could help us better treat patients. Photo credit should read ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

Brain differences between the genders do exist, and they play a role in how kind or generous we may or may not be, a new study says.

According to the research from the University of Zurich, such differences may cause female brains to be more inclined to prosocial helpful behavior, but make male brains more inclined to selfish behavior. These inclinations aren't innate, but rather appear to be learned as boys and girls begin to settle into their assigned gender roles.

For the study, now published online in Nature Human Behaviour, the team looked at brain scans of men and women to note which areas activated during both prosocial and selfish behavior. They then noted how this brain activation could be disrupted or altered by medication.

Related: Male and female brains differences are 'minimal': study

These experiments showed that an area of the brain called the striatum—responsible for reward assessment and decision-making—reacted to social situations differently for men and women. In women, the striatum was more strongly activated during prosocial decisions than selfish decisions. Men, however, had a stronger reward system activation when they made selfish decisions.

According to the researchers, these results show a clear difference in the way that men and women process generosity. How these differences came about is more complicated; the results suggest that gender roles do a whole lot more than tell girls to like Barbies and boys to like cars. Young girls, the study posits, are constantly being rewarded for being kind and gentle, and young boys are rewarded for being assertive, and these reward circuits physically change their brains on a pharmacological level.   

Related: Neurosexism: Women's brains are different from men's not inferioor

“It is important to emphasize that our data do not tell us anything about the origin of brain differences,” lead researcher Alexander Soutschek tells Newsweek in an email. “We believe that the observed gender differences can be explained by cultural factors, even though our data does not allow rejecting the innateness hypothesis,” or that some brain differences are present at birth. 

10_09_brain Understanding gender differences in the brains of men and women could help us better treat patients. Photo credit should read ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

These findings could have health implications: “First of all, our study shows the need for testing for potential gender differences when investigating social behavior,” Soutschek wrote. “Moreover, our data also show that a drug might have different impacts on social behaviour in women and men.”

For example, today, most medications are tested on males with the idea that they will work equally on both genders. However, these results show the need for testing on both genders and suggest that different drugs may have different affects on men and women. For example, as shown in a 2004 study published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, women tend to respond better to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors while men have better responses to tricyclics.

Medications that are tested and designed only for men sometimes prove detrimental to women. In other cases, the lack of research has limited our knowledge of how well a medication may work for women. Only recently has the inclusion of more women in lung cancer treatment research revealed that some treatments work better for women than men.

Although research into gender differences is sensitive and in some cases, controversial, it has the power to save lives. 

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