Much research suggests that women are more emotionally intelligent than men.
Except that with brain data, you have to be careful. (And we’re still figuring out how to study the brain.)
Because the brain is plastic.
The gender differences could be there at birth. Or they could have developed through experience. Or, it could be a case of both.
Whatever the case is, we’re training young boys to be less emotionally intelligent than young girls. So if the “deficiencies” are there at birth, we’re making it worse.
“Girls are better than boys”
In a review article, Sanchez-Nunez, Fernandez-Berrocal, Montanes, Latorre (2008) said that because of parental guidance and social pressures:
“Girls become adept at reading both verbal and non-verbal emotional indicators, as well as expressing and communicating their feelings, showing their superiority in the ability, among others, to capture feelings reflected in someone’s face, in the tone of voice and in other non-verbal messages.”
They also reported on a body of research demonstrating this “inequality in emotional education.”
Letting down our boys
Sanchez-Nunez, Fernandez-Berrocal, Montanes, Latorre (2008) also reported:
“Men, on the contrary, are socialized since they were children to avoid expressing their emotions. Male competitiveness, homophobia, avoiding vulnerability and opennes, and the lack of appropriate role models have all been highlighted as obstacles that prevent men from expressing themselves emotionally. Boys therefore specialize in minimizing any emotions linked to vulnerability, guilt, fear and pain.”
If a boy’s mother (or father) doesn’t encourage — or discourages – emotional awareness, expression, and discussion, what happens?
Boys perform worse at regulating negative emotions
Davis (1995) found that first- and third-grade girls were more sophisticated than boys at hiding negative emotional displays when receiving an undesirable gift (i.e., “baby” toy).
You could argue that the boys were better off because they were more honest and immune to the social pressure to fake pleasure and satisfaction (as girls grow up with their own dysfunctional gender-role training).
But at the same time, boys were less able to regulate their negative emotions, which is a facet of emotional intelligence.
Do boys lack the ability or motivation to regulate negative emotions?
Davis also set up a game task, where the children viewed two different prizes, one rated desirable and the other rated undesirable.
If a child gave away their emotional expressions when viewing the prizes — then the experimenter could guess which prize was the less desirable, and the child lost the game.
The child won the game if they could trick the experimenter — by hiding their negative emotional reactions to the undesirable prize. Winners got to take both prizes home.
So in the game task, the stakes were raised — you’d get something in return for hiding your emotions. Davis found that boys were better at hiding negative emotional displays in the game task compared to the gift task.
This suggests that boys had that ability to hid their negative emotions in the gift task. They just weren’t as motivated to do so compared to the game task. How much of that motivation do you think is socially conditioned? When do parents and society reward men who are motivated for regulating and working with their emotions?
Girls also performed better on the game task. (Girls performed better overall on both tasks.)
More research needs to be done to look at “how much” social conditioning has occurred by the first grade.
We’re not training boys to be (as) emotionally intelligent
But even if gender-role socialization capitalizes on “inherent” gender differences, it capitalizes nonetheless.
In a study by Fivush, Brotman, Buckner & Goodman (2000), parents discussed past events with their child.
Mothers took the lead in talking about emotional aspects of the events, and both mothers and fathers “used more emotional utterances when discussing sad events with daughters than with sons.”
So the family structure modeled how the woman in the heterosexual parent dyad is more emotionally literate.
And even fathers encouraged emotional discussion with daughters more than with sons.
And we wonder by the brains are different.
Parental training is only the beginning
Several other factors continue this emotional un-intelligence training beyond the home — public education, cultural norms, pop culture, and of course, growing up to be a responsible adult living in the “real world.” Which usually translates to “making a living” by slaving away for dysfunctional patriarchal corporations which predominantly lack empathy.
A boy needs to learn how to have a healthy, and yes masculine, relationship with his emotions. But the family and greater social systems can miserably fail him.
Emotional intelligence education
There’s a bright side to all this too. The recent surge in emotional intelligence training and research is trickling into schools, benefiting both boys and girls.
You can learn more about this major emotion revolution and three others in the 10-part free e-class, Your Life is Your Construct.
So what do you think? Do have parents and/or society been failing young boys? Is the situation getting better? Where do you think we’re headed?
Leave a comment below.
Want to Learn More About Emotional Intelligence? Sign up for the 10-part e-class on how to work with your emotions, which comes from understanding how your life is your construct.