She was clearly upset. The disgust on her face was apparent. As was her frustration when she shook her head at the man standing numbly beside her and said, "You have the emotional depth of a turnip!" The rest of us in the subway car did our best to look busy—headphones were put on, games were played on cell phones, even the morning newspaper made a few reappearances though it was the evening rush hour.
I have to admit that I was somewhat amused by the situation because I'd recently directed this phrase at a male friend myself, albeit in a less charged environment. The subway man's response was interesting: He appeared bewildered. And the response was eerily similar to that of the recipient of my own statement (though in fairness he accepted my diagnosis with some grace). Admittedly, I don't know the cause of this couple's argument, and I certainly don't know anything about their personalities or the nature of their relationship. Still the perceived shared response made me pause. I don't mean to imply that all men lack complex emotional responses—emotions and relationships are difficult to analyze and label in broad, social terms. Appropriate social and emotional responses are often culturally driven, and produced to various degrees dependent on personality. Nonetheless, regardless of cultural association, some people, both male and female, seem more emotionally expressive and perceptive when compared to others—is there a biological explanation for this?
Possibly. But not in the way you would think.
Emotions are a conscious experience. They're physical and we know they're happening. Even when we incorrectly identify them (e.g., saying "I'm not angry!" when in fact you're furious), we still experience them. But researchers Winkielman and Berridge (2004) have suggested that in some cases emotional processes may be unconscious, or implicit—that is we may feel something without being aware that we're having the feeling or behaving in a certain way. We may be influenced by subliminal stimuli. For example, research participants were exposed to several expressive faces and asked to then either pour themselves a drink or rate the drink. After viewing happy expressions, participants were more likely to drink more (they poured themselves larger drinks) and pay more for their drink (they rated the drink higher), especially if they were in fact thirsty (122). Participants were asked to rate their own mood and reported no changes, which suggests no awareness about changes in mood. This consequently implies that they were swayed by subliminal messaging.
Winkielman and Berridge argue that the evolutionary purpose of emotions is to regulate appropriate responses—it helps us negotiate our networks:
Basic affective reactions are widely shared by animals, including reptiles and fish, and at least in some species may not involve conscious awareness comparable to that in humans. The original function of emotion was to allow the organism to react appropriately to positive or negative events, and conscious feelings might not always have been required (2004: 122).
Basic affective responses, such as liking pleasant experiences or feeling fear in threatening situations, may be hardwired into our social circuitry. These responses are controlled by subcortical structures in the brain—such as the amygdala—which carry out preconscious operations. Anencephalic infants, for example, who possess only a brainstem still demonstrate positive reactions to agreeable experiences like tasting sugar, and negative reactions to tasting bitter items.
The role the amygdala plays in emotional response is not fully understood. As discussed above, there may be some connection between the amygdala and basic affective responses. Anderson and Phelps (2000) presented a case study of a patient known as SP who suffered from lesions in the region of the amydala. In tests that asked her to identify the emotions of others, she demonstrated a diminished sensitivity to interpreting disgust and happiness:
Across patients, however, damage to the amygdala is most associated with impairments in the recognition of fear. Further, SP exhibited a pattern of impairment in the evaluation of expressions other than fear that is largely consistent with her extra-amygdalar damage in the right anteromedial temporal lobe. Thus, we conservatively assert that SP's deficits in recognizing expressions of fear are associated with lesions of her amygdala (Anderson and Phelps 2000: 108).
There is some belief that the amygdala in particular may play a role in our ability to learn and interpret nonverbal social communication. Both Winkielman and Berridge (2004) and Anderson and Phelps (2000) make reference to the importance for nonhuman primates to recognize social displays of fear and suggest that these responses may be based in this structure: "fearful facial expressions may be important for learning to fear previously neutral environmental stimuli" (Anderson and Phelps 2000: 111).
However, I'm going to work with the assumption that both the subway man and my clueless friend have fully functional amydaloid regions. It's possible that there is a gender difference when it comes to emotional understanding and response. A recent article from Hoffman and colleagues (2010) reports that women are better at interpreting subtle emotional clues. When asked to appropriately label facially expressed emotions, women were significantly better at picking up on low intensity emotional cues, so a glance or a movement may be significant to woman in a way that's very different to a man. In light of the discussion by Winkielman and Berridge, I'll venture to say that women may be more likely to respond to subliminal stimuli as well. Men appear to have trouble distinguishing anger and sadness from each other at low intensity expressions—so men aren't likely to pick up that you're upset if you're silently fuming, ladies.
The reasons for this difference isn't clear. There isn't a clear biological divide as to why women may be more perceptive than men when it comes to emotions. Certainly socialization may play a role in emotional sensitivity. But is that all there is to it? Perhaps emotional sensitivity plays a role in our evolutionary history—in hierarchical groups, it would have been beneficial to be able to read the social cues of others, particularly when they ranked higher within the group. It could have potentially saved the lives of offspring, and assured continued group membership and protection. For example, knowing when to avoid the group's matriarch or the Alpha male, could have been useful knowledge to have.
In this case, and in my own experience, these studies highlight that that there is in fact the potential for a biological and social divide in communication between the sexes that goes beyond simple socialization. Again, this is not to suggest that all men are emotional turnips or that women are all hypersensitive and savvy to emotions, but it does advocate for a bit of patience on both of our parts—particularly in public confrontations.
Anderson, A., & Phelps, E. (2000). Expression Without Recognition: Contributions of the Human Amygdala to Emotional Communication Psychological Science, 11 (2), 106-111 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00224
Hoffmann, H., Kessler, H., Eppel, T., Rukavina, S., & Traue, H. (2010). Expression intensity, gender and facial emotion recognition: Women recognize only subtle facial emotions better than men☆ Acta Psychologica, 135 (3), 278-283 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2010.07.012
Winkielman, P., & C. Berridge, K. (2004). Unconscious Emotion Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13 (3), 120-123 DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00288.x