The Essential Difference

The Essential Difference
Author: Simon Baron-Cohen


In tackling a topic the author depicts as ‘alarming‘ and ‘politically sensitive‘, the author of this book admitted that he was jumping ‘straight into the heart of the political correctness debate’. But this is what he did when he bravely took on the ‘once-taboo‘ subject of sex differences, arguing that it was possible to do so ‘without aiming to oppress either sex’. Written by a neuroscientist who has thoroughly investigated gender differences, the book relies predominantly on his own research findings which have established not just the existence of dissimilarities between the brains and behaviours of men and women, but also charts when these appear. The book also contended that there is ‘enough accumulated supporting evidence‘ to dismiss as ‘too simplistic’ the idea that these differences are ‘wholly cultural in origin’. The author extended his discussion of gender differences to include the concepts of the extreme female and extreme male brain in the contexts of empathy and autism, unequivocally asserting that ‘the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy‘ and ‘the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems‘. The scope of the book is quite exhaustive, with themes as wide ranging as friendships, relationships, intimacy, parenting styles, role play, sexual fantasies, sex drives, jealousy, expression of aggression, lethality of violence, politics, intelligence, and the establishment of dominance hierarchies (pages 1, 10-11, 34-49, and 56-57).


CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

One of the concepts that symbolises the book’s argument on gender differences is that of empathizing – the capacity for ‘recognising and responding to any emotion or state of mind’. The author describes this as a quality that ‘arises out of a natural desire to care about others’, and which enables people to ‘spontaneously and naturally‘ tune into the thoughts and feelings of others. Contending that, ‘on average’, females empathize better than males, the author explained that this requires the awareness of how others see you, and the understanding that their feelings can influence yours. Empathizing, he adds, entails continuously monitoring the other person to gauge their thoughts and feelings, adding that a good empathizer is the one who ‘responds intuitively to a change in another person’s mood with concern, appreciation, understanding, comforting, or whatever the appropriate emotion may be’. Good empathizers, he added, also recognise ‘the subtle differences between shades of emotion‘, and are therefore able, for example, to distinguish different types of hostility such as aggression, hate, threat, contempt, cruelty, condescension and superciliousness. The book also evaluated the two types of empathy – cognitive and mindreading – and it discussed the impact of empathy in spheres as diverse as conversations, relationships, and the development of moral codes (pages 2,5 and 23-30).

Empathy picture. AMCSviatko on Flickr.

In contrast to the concept of empathizing is the notion of systemizing, an attribute the author defined as ‘the drive to analyse, explore, and construct a system’ with the goals of understanding, predicting, or reinventing it. The author defined a system as ‘anything which is governed by rules specifying input-operation-output relationships’, and he referred to its six major classes which cover everything from science, music, military strategy, and horticulture, to computer programming, libraries, companies, and sports. The author asserted that males ‘on average’, systemize more than females, and this is reflected in such qualities as the capacity for detachment, ‘an exact eye for detail‘, and the ability to control. The author however stressed that there is no clear dividing line between the sexes when it comes to the ability to empathize or systemize; rather, he argued that the two qualities exist on a spectrum which has, at one end, the extreme male brain – typified by normal or excessive systemizing but poor empathizing, and at the other end, the extreme female brain – women who may be systemblind but hyperempathic (pages 3-7, 63-84 and 170-174).

Sculptures of Native Man and Woman. Jay Galvin on Flickr.

Many of the other gender differences the book discussed stemmed from the differences in the capacity for empathizing and sytemizing. Illustrating this, the author cited the example of the language superiority of women which he argues is related to their ‘stronger empathizing ability’. Exploring this further, the author cited research which showed that ‘women produce more words in a given period, make fewer speech errors, are better at distinguishing speech sounds, use longer sentences, and speak easier and faster than males. He argued that the female communication style is influenced by empathizing as illustrated by their tendency to use ‘socially enabling‘ and ‘double-voiced‘ dialogue, and their preference for expressing their opinions in a ‘less dominating, less confrontational and less humiliating‘ way – a speaking style that allows for ‘subjectivity in the world’ and makes ‘room for multiple interpretations‘. In contrast, he said male speech tends to be egocentric and domineering, and characterised by the use of imperatives, prohibitions, and grandstanding (pages 6 and 60 and 50-53).

Conversation – three women talking. Dan Mason on Flickr.

A central theme of the book is the chronological manifestation of behavioural gender differences in childhood, a topic the author supported with extensive research evidence. In discussing play behaviour for example, the author argued that sex differences emerge as early as the age of 2 years when boys’ play becomes more competitive, and is more likely to be associated with ‘misattribution of hostile intent‘; on the other hand, girlsplay at that age is typified by ‘turn-taking‘ and a preference of verbal over physical skills to resolve differences. The author also discussed sex differences in the demonstration of empathy, arguing that girls as young as one year old ‘respond more empathically to the distress of other people via sad expressions and comforting behaviour‘. He added that ‘by the age of three, young girls are already ahead of boys in ‘theory of mind‘- their ability to infer what people might be thinking or intending’. The author cited his own research in infants which demonstrated that girls looked at their mother’s faces more often than boys, and, as early as one day old, girls looked longer at a real face whilst boys looked longer at a made-up face. Other early sex differences the book discussed included age at speech onset, size of vocabulary, listening ability, openness to strangers, choice of toys, and preference for playmates (pages 31-33, 57-60, 45, 106 and 31).

Play. Abhijit Kar Gupta on Flickr.

Crucial to any discussion of gender differences are the implications on individuals and society, and the author explored this at great length. Whilst he maintains that the determining factors for the sex differences are biological, he nevertheless did not dismiss the idea that social and cultural factors play a part in shaping gender differences later in life. However, after discussing these complex and nuanced factors, and exploring what he labelled as the contradictory research findings behind them, he concluded that most of the touted cultural drivers are themselves a reaction to biologically determined differences between the male and female brains. The author however maintained that gender differences are things to celebrate rather than fear, going on to highlight the evolutionary and social advantages of having different brain types which ‘appear to have been selected as specializations for entirely different goals and niches‘. It is also significant that the author believed that the differences between males and females are equivocal and not as clear-cut as the statistical averages he cited may portray. Stressing that they are not as hard-wired as they appear to be, he argued that the sex differences are modifiable qualities and not deterministic traits (pages 1, 73, 57-58, 85-95, 8-9 and 132).

Woman and man. x1klima on Flickr.


In a subject that is passionately fractured by passionately held divergent opinions, and coloured by political correctness and gender sensitivity, this book tries to provide a balanced view of the differences between the female and male brain. Whilst the author asserted the validity of the statistical differences that distinguish the two genders, he nevertheless highlighted subtleties and refinements that blur the distinctions. He acknowledged the role of social and cultural determinants of gender differences, and the risk that gender stereotypes undermine the educational, social, and employment chances of girls and women. His exploration of the extreme male and female brains was clinically relevant, and recognising these variations will help to channel the abilities of those affected in the right direction educationally and occupationally.

Overall assessment

Whilst the author expressed unequivocal conclusions, the elucidation of his arguments came with quite a number of equivocations and explanations, and one may even add, with some defensiveness. Although these are understandable given the controversial nature of the debate, they might have diluted the key messages he set out to convey in the book. Whilst the author argues that statistical differences between the genders should not be equated with stereotyping, it is difficult to see how this can be avoided in reality. The book has however highlighted the key issues in understanding the brain and gender, and I recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year:  Penguin Books, London, 2003
Number of chapters: 12
Number of pages: 263
ISBN: 978-0-241-96135-3
Star rating: 5
Price: £8.19

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