Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
ISSN 1492-3713

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The Mental Traits of Sex

Helen Bradford Thompson (1903)
Posted June 2000

 Classics Editor's note: The numbers appearing in parentheses throughout the text refer to the items
in the bibliography at the end of the volume.

[p. 169] CHAPTER IX.


IN the previous chapters the separate divisions of conscious processes, motor ability, the various sensory fields, intellectual faculties, and the affective processes have been considered singly with reference to their comparative development in men and women. We may now bring together the results obtained from the various fields, and ascertain whether or not any broad generalizations with reference to the psychological norms of men and women which can be regarded as of fundamental importance have been reached.

It has been found that motor ability in most of its forms is better developed in men than in women. In strength, rapidity of movement, and rate of fatigue, they have a very decided advantage, and in precision of movement a slight advantage. These four forms of superiority are probably all expressions of one and the same fact -- the greater muscular strength of men. In the formation of a new co-ordination women are superior to men. The greater muscular strength of men is a universally accepted fact. There has been more or less dispute as to which sex displays greater manual dexterity. According to the present results, manual dexterity which consists in the ability to make very delicate and minutely controlled movements is slightly greater in men; that which consists in the ability to co-ordinate movements rapidly to unforeseen stimuli is clearly greater in women.[p. 170]

There have been two opposing views on the general subject of the sensibility of the sexes; one assigning the keener senses to men, and the other to women. They have been based either on inadequate experiment in a few fields of sensibility or on general theoretical considerations. The present investigation of the total field of sensibility has resulted in the following conclusions regarding thresholds and discriminative sensibility:

Thresholds. -- Women have lower thresholds in the recognition of two points on the skin; in touch; in sweet, salt, sour, and bitter taste; in smell; in color; and in pain through pressure. Men and women are alike in respect to the upper and lower limits of pitch. Men have a lower threshold in the perception of light.

Discriminative sensibility. -- Women have finer discrimination in pitch and in color. Men and women have equal discrimination in temperature, in odor, and in passive pressure. Men have finer discrimination in lifted weights; in sweet, sour, and bitter taste; in shades of gray; probably in areas on the skin (the test on this subject does not warrant certainty); and in visual areas.

The number of cases in which the advantage is on the side of the women is greater than the number of cases in which it is on the side of the men. The thresholds are on the whole lower in women; discriminative sensibility is on the whole better in men. Those sensory judgments into which sensations of movement enter directly, such as the discrimination of lifted weights and of visual lines and areas are somewhat better in men. All these differences, however, are slight.[p. 171]

As for the intellectual faculties, women are decidedly superior to men in memory, and possibly more rapid in associative thinking. Men are probably superior in ingenuity. In general information and intellectual interests there is no difference characteristic of sex.

The data on the life of feeling indicate that there is little, if any, sexual difference in the degree of domination by emotion, and that social consciousness is more prominent in men and religious consciousness in women.

Let us now turn to the question how well or how ill these results accord with the prevailing biological view of the mental differences between the sexes.

It is perhaps not fair to speak of a prevailing view in a question regarding which dispute is so rife; but the view which seems to command the adherence of most scientists at present is that advanced by Geddes and Thomson (29). It is worked out in some detail on the psychological side by Fouillée (25); Brooks (10) and Patrick (68) represent the same tendency. The view is not altogether free from contradictions, nor entirely satisfactory in so far as it pretends to be a theory of the evolution of sex. Leaving these points aside, its general tenets are that the differentiation between the sexes in the course of evolution has been in the direction of a sort of division of labor, the male assuming the processes of nutrition and the female those of reproduction, which has made women more anabolic and men more catabolic in physiological structure. This difference is displayed in its most elementary form by the two sexual cells. The female is large and immobile. It represents stored nutrition.[p. 172] The male cell is small and agile. It represents expenditure of energy. >From these fundamental characteristics the social and psychological differences can be deduced. The female represents the conservation of the species -- the preservation of past gains made by the race. Her characteristics are continuity, patience, and stability. Her mental life is dominated by integration. She is skilled in particular ideas and in the application of generalizations already obtained, but not in abstraction or the formation of new concepts. Since woman is receptive, she possesses keener senses and more intense reflexes than man. Her tendency to accumulate nutrition brings about a greater development of the viscera, and, since emotions are reflex waves from the viscera, woman is more emotional than man. The male, on the other hand, represents the introduction of new elements. Males are more variable than females throughout the animal kingdom. Everywhere we find the male sex adventurous and inventive. Its variety of ideas and sentiments is greater. Its activities are characterized everywhere by impulsiveness and intensity, rather than by patience and continuity. Men are more capable of intense and prolonged concentration of attention than women. They are less influenced by feeling than women. They have greater powers of abstraction and generalization.

It is evident that, on the surface at least, the results at which we have arrived accord very well with this theory. Men did prove in our experiments to have better-developed motor ability and more ingenuity. Women did have somewhat keener senses and better memory. The assertion that the influence of emotion [p. 173] is greater in the life of women found no confirmation. Their greater tendency toward religious faith, however, and the greater number of superstitions among them, point toward their conservative nature -- their function of preserving established beliefs and institutions.

But before we accept the theory advanced as the correct interpretation of the facts, it would be well to examine a little more closely the evidence on which it rests, and consider whether or not there is any other possible interpretation with equal claims to a hearing.

In the first place, this theory, in so far as its deductions about mental characteristics are derived as necessary conclusions from the nature of the genital cells, seems to rest on somewhat far-fetched analogies only. The sets of characteristics deduced for the sexes may be correct, but the method of deriving them is not very convincing, nor is the set of characteristics derived for each sex entirely consistent. Women are said to represent concentration, patience, and stability in emotional life. One might logically conclude that prolonged concentration of attention and unbiased generalization would be their intellectual characteristics. But these are the very characteristics assigned to men. Women, though more stable in their emotions, are more influenced by them, and, although they represent patience and concentration, they are incapable of prolonged efforts of attention. Men, whose activity is essentially intermittent, and whose emotions are greater in variety and more unstable, are characterized by prolonged strains of attention and unbiased judgment. It may be true, but the proof for it does not appeal to one as very cogent. In fact, after reading the several expositions of this theory, one is left [p. 174] with a strong impression that, if the authors' views as to the mental differences of sex had been different, they might as easily have derived a very different set of characteristics. There is truth as well as humor in Lourbet's (52, chap. vi) suggestion that, if the nature of the genital cells were reversed, it would be a little easier for this school of evolutionists to derive the characteristics of sex with which they finally come out. In that case, the female cell, smaller and more agile than the male, would represent woman with her smaller size, her excitable nervous system, and her incapacity for sustained effort of attention; while the male cell, large, calm, and self-contained, would image the size and strength, the impartial reason, and the easy concentration of attention of men.

The fact which is put forward to prove the greater natural ingenuity and inventiveness of man is his greater variability. Lombroso, without more ado, asserts that the male is everywhere, and in all respects, more variable than the female, and that this fact alone is sufficient to prove his greater creative ability. The doctrine has been unquestioningly adopted by all the advocates of this theory. It is called upon to explain the occurrence of more individuals of unusual mental capacity, both above and below the norm, as well as to account for the greater versatility and inventiveness of the male mind.

Unfortunately for the theory, the latest researches on the question of variability have failed to sustain it. Pearson (69) subjects the previous methods of measuring variability to criticism, and finds them very faulty. He insists that pathological variations are not a fair test of average variability in the sexes, because many [p. 175] diseases have a tendency to attack one sex rather than the other. The true measure of the variability which must be regarded as important in evolution is, he says, the amount of normal variation found in organs or characteristics not of a secondary sexual character. The variation, however, of any organ must be judged by its relative departure from its mean, not, as has formerly been done, by its absolute variation, or by its variation relatively to some other organ. Taking all the available physical measurements of human beings as a basis for his calculation, Pearson finds the total trend of his observations to be toward a somewhat greater tendency to variation in women than in men. He concludes that "the principle that man is more variable than woman must be put aside as a pseudoscientific superstition until it has been demonstrated in a more scientific manner than has hitherto been attempted."

While it may still prove true that men are intellectually more variable than women, it cannot be deduced directly from the universally greater variability of man. The fact is often held to be proved from the greater prevalence of both genius and imbecility among men, but, as Pearson points out, these are both forms of abnormal variation. It is perfectly conceivable that the class which presented the greatest number of abnormalities in a character might not be the class which displayed the widest normal variations of that character.

But even though it could be shown that men are intellectually more variable than women, it is still difficult to see why this would give a basis for the statement that inventiveness and ability to arrive at [p. 176] new generalizations are characteristic of the male mind as opposed to the female. It would, if true, lead us to expect a greater number of intellectually inferior and of intellectually superior individuals belonging to the male sex. In so far as great originality is characteristic of exceptional mental ability, it would lead us to expect that the greatest discoveries and inventions should come from these exceptional individuals. But that is not at all the same thing as saying that originality and inventiveness are characteristic of the male mind as a whole, in opposition to the female mind, as a whole. This statement assumes not merely greater variability of mind in general, but the presence of a variation in a given direction.

The biological theory of psychological differences of sex is not in a condition to compel assent. While it is true, therefore, that the present investigation tends to support the theory, it is just as true that the uncertain basis of the theory itself leaves room for other explanations of the facts, if there are other satisfactory ways of explaining them.

In considering the question whether or not there is any other explanation for the facts in the case, it is important to remember that the make-up of any adult individual cannot be attributed entirely to inherited tendency. The old question of the relative importance of heredity and environment in the final outcome of the individual must be taken into consideration. Although the timeworn controversy is far from satisfactory settlement, the results of recent observation on individual development have tended to emphasize more and more the extreme importance of envi-[p. 177]ronment. The sociological experiments in which very young children from the criminal classes have been placed in good surroundings, with no knowledge of their antecedents, have shown that such children usually develop into good members of society. The entire practical movement of sociology is based on the firm conviction that an individual is very vitally molded by his surroundings, and that even Slight modifications may produce important changes in character.

The suggestion that the observed psychological differences of sex maybe due to difference in environment has often been met with derision, but it seems at least worthy of unbiased consideration. The fact that very genuine and important differences of environment do exist can be denied only by the most superficial observer. Even in our own country, where boys and girls are allowed to go to the same schools and to play together to some extent, the social atmosphere is different, from the cradle. Different toys are given them, different occupations and games are taught them, different ideals of conduct are held up before them. The question for the moment is not at all whether or not these differences in education are right and proper and necessary, but merely whether or not, as a matter of fact, they exist, and, if so, what effect they have on the individuals who are subjected to them.

The difference in physical training is very evident. Boys are encouraged in all forms of exercise and in out-of-door life, while girls are restricted in physical exercise at a very early age. Only a few forms of exercise are considered lady-like. Rough games and violent exercise of all sorts are discouraged. Girls [p. 178] are kept in the house and taught household occupations. The development of physical strength is not held up to girls as an ideal, while it is made one of the chief ambitions of boys.

While it is improbable that all the difference of the sexes with regard to physical strength can be attributed to persistent difference in training, it is certain that a large part of the difference is explicable on this ground. The great strength of savage women and the rapid increase in strength in civilized women, wherever systematic physical training has been introduced, both show the importance of this factor. When we consider other forms of motor ability than mere muscular force, such as quickness of reaction and accuracy of co-ordination, it seems very probable that mere differences of physical training are ample to account for these differences of sex. While it seems to be true that slower rates of movement and decreased accuracy of co-ordination do result from greatly inferior physical strength it is not true that the correlation is quantitatively a close one. Even with wide differences in muscular force, the difference in motor ability is comparatively slight. Where the differences in strength are slight, we have no reason to expect differences in motor ability on that ground.

When we consider the other important respect in which men are supposed to be superior to women -- ingenuity or inventiveness -- we find equally important differences in social surroundings which would tend to bring about this result. Boys are encouraged to individuality. They are trained to be independent in thought and action. This is the ideal of manliness held up before them. They are expected to under-[p. 179]stand the use of tools and machinery, and encouraged to experiment and make things for themselves. Girls are taught obedience, dependence, and deference. They are made to feel that too much independence of opinion or action is a drawback to them -- not becoming or womanly. A boy is made to feel that his success in life, his place in the world, will depend upon his ability to go ahead with his chosen occupation on his own responsibility, and to accomplish something new and valuable. No such social spur is applied to girls. Royce (73) in his article on the psychology of invention says:

Only heredity can account for the very wide differences between clever men and stupid men, or explain why men of genius exist at all. But the minor and still important inventiveness of the men of talent, the men of the second grade, is somehow due to a social stimulation which sets their habits varying in different directions. And this stimulation is of the type which abounds in periods of individualism. . . . For once more, the primary character of the social influences to which we are exposed is that, within limits, they set us to imitating models; they tend to make us creatures of social routine, slaves of the mob, or obedient servants of the world about us. . . . Inventions thus seem to be the results of the encouragement of individuality.
If one applies these words to the question of the relative inventiveness of the sexes, and realizes the wide differences in social influence which still exist even in a community where women have more freedom and more education than anywhere else in the world, it seems rash to assume that the observed difference in inventiveness represents a genuine and fundamental sexual difference of mind. The fact that the difference revealed by experiment is so slight in men and women whose educations have been as nearly [p. 180] alike as those of students in a co-educational university, tends to throw further doubt on the fundamental importance of this distinction. The very brief period in which women have been given any systematic education, or any freedom of choice in occupation, makes it impossible to decide the question on the basis of previous achievement.

The same social influences which have tended to retard the development of motor ability and of inventiveness in women would tend to develop keenness of sense and the more reproductive mental processes, such as memory. The question is largely one of the distribution of attention. A large part of a boy's attention goes toward his activities -- the learning of new movements, the manipulating of tools, the making of contrivances of various sorts. A girl's less active existence must be filled with some other sort of conscious process. The only possibility is that sensory and perceptual processes should be more prominent. In some cases the special training of girls tends directly toward the development of a special sense. This is notably true in color, and perhaps has some influence in taste. On the more purely intellectual level, it is only natural that in the absence of a sufficient social spur toward originality and inventiveness, they should depend more upon memory for their supply of ideas. It is easier for any individual to learn some one else's ideas than to think out his own. Every teacher has to struggle against the tendency to memorize merely, and to endeavor in every way to stimulate original thought and help pupils to form the habit of doing their own thinking. It is no great matter for surprise that in the absence of social stimulus toward originality of [p. 181] thought, women should have tended, from inertia, to stay in the realm of reproductive thinking.

It will probably be said that this view of the case puts the cart before the horse -- that the training and social surroundings of the sexes are different because their natural characteristics are different. It will be said that a boy is encouraged to activity because he is naturally active -- that he is given tools instead of a doll because he is naturally more interested in tools than in dolls. But there are many indications that these very interests are socially stimulated. A small boy with an older sister and no brothers is very sure to display an ambition to have dolls. It is in most cases quenched early by ridicule, but it is evident that a boy must be taught what occupations are suited to boys. The sorrows of a small girl with brothers because she is not allowed to run and race with the boys and take part in their sports and games have frequently been recounted. If it were really a fundamental difference of instincts and characteristics which determined the difference of training to which the sexes are subjected, it would not be necessary to spend so much effort in making boys and girls follow the lines of conduct proper to their sex. The more probable interpretation of the facts is that the necessities of social organization have in the past brought about a division of labor between the sexes, the usefulness of which is evident. Social ideals have been developed in connection with this economic necessity, and still persist.

This is not the place to discuss the question whether or not the conditions of social organization still demand the same division of labor, and make the preservation of the traditional ideals for the sexes [p. 182] necessary to the good of society. If such is the case, there is no doubt that the present state of affairs will persist. There are, as everyone must recognize, signs of a radical change in the social ideals of sex. The point to be emphasized as the outcome of this study is that, according to our present light, the psychological differences of sex seem to be largely due, not to difference of average capacity, nor to difference in type of mental activity, but to differences in the social influences brought to bear on the developing individual from early infancy to adult years. The question of the future development of the intellectual life of women is one of social necessities and ideals, rather than of the inborn psychological characteristics of sex.