It’s an old stereotype that women can pick up on social nuances that men can’t. Ask a neuroscientist whether women are more adept at interpreting feelings from looking at people’s faces, and you’ll get a resounding yes. Or possibly, a resounding no. It turns out that it really depends which neuroscientist you ask.
To pick one example, in 2009, Olivier Collignon and his team from the Université de Montréal Centre de recherche en neuropsychologie et cognition (CERNEC) hired actors to portray fear or disgust in front of 23 men and 23 women, all between the ages of 18 and 43. Participants then had to categorize each performance by emotion. This study found that women completed the assignment more accurately. Women also responded faster when judging the faces of other women.
However, that sample size of 46 might raise a few eyebrows when it comes to stating any solid, sweeping conclusions about the sexes.
On the other hand, a 1986 metanalysis by Peter Shapiro and Steven Penrod looked at 128 different facial recognition tests and found no overall appreciable difference in performance based on gender.
Enter K. Suzanne Scherf, Daniel B. Elbich and Natalie V. Motta-Mena. These Pennsylvania State psychologists organized a new study in 2017, combining behavioral tests with neuroimaging to try to settle this battle of the sexes once and for all.
The Penn State study carefully chose 116 young adults, 58 of whom were women, and all of whom were between the ages of 18 and 25. The subjects completed the long form version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, a tool which measures the ability to pick out a male face out of a lineup of three faces. To eliminate any possible gender bias, the researchers also constructed a second version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, which does the same thing but with female faces.
Next, 15 male participants and 15 female participants were selected to watch various film clips of objects and faces while having their brans scanned in an MRI machine. If men and women really did experience faces differently somehow, the psychologists figured, then some type of differences would surface in the neural scans when shown a face on a screen, be it the areas highlighted or activation strength.
Scherf et al published their results in a paper titled “Investigating the Influence of Biological Sex on the Behavioral and Neural Basis of Face Recognition.”
The short version? There was no influence. Men and women were equally good at picking out male and female faces, and the brain scans demonstrated no clear differences in how male brains or female brains react to faces.
While the relatively small sample size still complicates any definitive statement, on an evolutionary standpoint, it seems to make sense. “Our findings suggest that face recognition behavior…is not inherently sexually dimorphic,” says the paper. “Face recognition is an essential skill for navigating human social interactions, which is reflected equally in the behavior and neural architecture of men and women.”