In the article How men and women perceive the world differently, we looked at the differences in the visual perceptions of men and women.
We also saw how well these sex differences fitted with the hunter-gatherer hypothesis i.e. for the most part of our evolutionary history men predominantly played the role of hunters while women took up the role of gatherers.
In this article, we turn our attention to another sensory system- the auditory system. Should we expect to find differences in the ways male and female brains process sound on the basis of their different evolved evolutionary roles? Are women better listeners than men or is it the other way around?
It’s not what you said; it’s the way you said it
Since ancestral women spent most of their time nurturing children and gathering food in cohesive bands, they needed to be good at interpersonal communication. A key feature of having good interpersonal communication skills is being able to deduce a person’s emotional state from their facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice.
Women, unlike men, needed to be especially sensitive to the different types of cries and sounds that an infant makes and be able to accurately understand the child’s needs. This extends to being able to infer the emotional state, motivations, and attitudes of other people by their voice tone.
Studies have shown that women indeed have a superior sensitivity than men in differentiating tone changes in voice, volume, and pitch.1 They can read between the lines and understand the speaker’s intention, attitude or emotion just by their voice tone.
This is why you often hear women, not men, say things like:
“It’s not what you said; it’s the way you said it.”
“Don’t use that tone of voice with me.”
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
“There was something off about the way he said it.”
Women also have the ability to separate and categorize sounds and make decisions about each sound.2 This means that while a woman is talking to you, she’s also monitoring the conversations of people nearby. While you’re conversing with a woman, she has the ability to respond to the conversation that is going on between other people nearby.
This female behaviour frustrates men because they think that the woman isn’t paying attention to them during a conversation, which isn’t true. She’s paying attention to both her conversation and the conversation that’s going on nearby.
Ancestral women living in caves had to be sensitive to a baby’s cry at night because it could mean the baby’s hungry or in danger. In fact, women are excellent at recognizing the cries of their own babies as soon as 2 days after birth.3
This is probably why modern women are usually alerted first if there’s any weird sound in the house, especially at night.
In horror movies, when there’s an unusual sound in the house at night, it’s usually the woman who wakes up first. Worried, she awakens her husband and tells him that someone’s in the house and if he can hear it. He’s oblivious to the entire thing and says, “It’s nothing, darling” till the ghost/intruder actually begins to terrorize them or the intensity of the sound increases.
Men can tell where the sounds are coming from
Hunting did not require ancestral men to have good interpersonal communication skills or be able to infer the emotional state of others by their voice tone.
Think of what auditory capabilities are required to be a good hunter.
First, you should be able to know where the sounds that you hear are coming from. By estimating correctly the location of the source of the sound, you can tell how near or far away a prey or predator is and make decisions accordingly.
Second, you should be able to identify and differentiate the different animal sounds so that you can know what animal it is, predator or prey, just by hearing their sound from afar even if they’re not visible.
Studies have shown that men indeed are generally better than women at sound localization4 i.e. the ability to tell where a sound is coming from. Also, they’re better at identifying and differentiating animal sounds.
So, while it’s usually the woman who’s alerted first in a horror movie by an unusual sound, it’s usually the man who’s able to tell what’s making the sound or where it’s coming from.
- Moir, A. P., & Jessel, D. (1997). Brain sex. Random House (UK).
- Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2016). Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps: How to spot the differences in the way men & women think. Hachette UK.
- Formby, D. (1967). Maternal recognition of infant’s cry. Developmental medicine & child neurology, 9(3), 293-298.
- McFadden, D. (1998). Sex differences in the auditory system. Developmental Neuropsychology, 14(2-3), 261-298.