An invented statistic returns

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Catherine Griffin, "Why Women Talk More Than Men: Language Protein Uncovered", Science World Report 2/20/2013.

You know all the times that men complain about women talking too much? Apparently there's a biological explanation for the reason why women are chattier than men. Scientists have discovered that women possess higher levels of a "language protein" in their brains, which could explain why females are so talkative.

Previous research has shown that women talk almost three times as much as men. In fact, an average woman notches up 20,000 words in a day, which is about 13,000 more than the average man. In addition, women generally speak more quickly and devote more brainpower to speaking. Yet before now, researchers haven't been able to biologically explain why this is the case.

Eun Kyung Kim, "Chatty Cathy, listen up: New study reveals why women talk more than men", Today Show 2/21/2013:

Women have a gift for gab, and now they can silence their critics with science.

New research indicates there’s a biological reason why women talk so much more than men: 20,000 words a day spoken by the average woman, according to one study, versus about 7,000 words a day for the average man.

Women’s brains have higher levels of a “language protein” called FOXP2, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The stimulus for these little nuggets of nonsense was J. Michael Bowers, Miguel Perez-Pouchoulen, N. Shalon Edwards,3 and Margaret M. McCarthy, "Foxp2 Mediates Sex Differences in Ultrasonic Vocalization by Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval",  The Journal of Neuroscience, February 20, 2013. More on Bowers et al. later — this morning, I'll just take up the "previous research has shown that women talk almost three times as much as men" business.

Summarizing:

  1. There has never been any "study" showing that "women talk almost three times as much as men", although this non-existent "research" has been cited by dozens of science writers, relationship counselors, celebrity preachers, and other people in the habit of claiming non-existent authoritative support for their personal impressions;
  2. Many real-world studies of gender differences in language use indicate that men and women are about equally talkative. One large, relatively recent study (M.R. Mehl et al., "Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?", Science, 317(5834) p. 82 July 5, 2007) found essentially equal counts of about 16,000 words per day in six samples of university students in the U.S. and Mexico.
  3. The University of Maryland study did not perform any word counts whatever, but rather looked at the effects of FOXP2 gene expression on the vocalizations of baby rats, and measured Foxp2 protein levels in the brains of a few dead human children.

Some LLOG posts on an earlier outbreak of the "women talk three times as much as men" meme:

"Sex-linked lexical budgets", 8/6/2006
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting", 8/14/2006
"Gabby guys: The effect size", 9/23/2006
"Regression to the mean in British journalism", 11/28/2006
"Contagious misinformation", 12/1/2006
"Femail again", 12/2/2006
"Sex differences in 'communication events' per day", 12/11/2006

This time around, there's a bit of informed push-back:

Tracie Egan Morrissey, "The Whole ‘Women Talk More Than Men’ Thing Is a Myth", Jezebel 2/21/2013
According to a study women talk more than men. Which study?", Ask MetaFilter 2/21/2013
Amanda Marcotte, "Women Don't Talk More Than Men, So Why Do People Believe That They Do?", Slate 2/22/2013
PZ Myers, "Not to mention the excessive reductionism", Pharyngula 2/23/2013

But the replicators of falsehood have more and bigger megaphones:

Fiona Macrae (Science Correspondent), "Sorry to interrupt, dear, but women really do talk more than men (13,000 words a day more to be precise)", Daily Mail 2/20/2013

George Barnes, "Science sheds light on big talk", Telegram 2/23/2013:

The Journal of Neuroscience, for those of you who don’t regularly read it, is a publication that most often focuses on articles about such things as endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol or phospholipid scramblase-1-induced lipid reorganization.

On Feb. 20, the journal published an article, “FoxP2 Mediates Sex Differences in Ultrasonic Vocalization By Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval,” or, as foxnewsinsider.com put it, “Truth Revealed! Women Talk (A Lot) More than Men.” […]

The article was about a study by the University of Maryland that indicated women say about 20,000 words each day, while men tend to not speak for weeks except to order beer and swear.

OK, I was just kidding. Some don’t drink beer, and most men do say 7,000 words a day, but I think it is pretty clear that they repeat a few significant words over and over. Most are words that probably should not be published in a family newspaper, especially one with many readers who are descendants of severe Puritans and their seriously chatty wives.

"Study: Women Speak 13K More Words a Day than Men", ABC News 2/21/2013:

A brand new study breaks down why women out-talk men and helps uncover why ladies are actually hard-wired in a way that causes us to utter thousands more words per day than men. […]

Researchers have claimed on average 20,000 words a day for a woman on average. Just 7,000 for a man.

Eliza Collins, "Who talks more: Men or women?", USA Today 2/21/2013:

Women speak an average of 20,000 words a day vs. 7,000 words for men, according to Louann Brizendine, a practicing physician at the University of California-San Francisco and author of The Female Brain.

Michelle Castillo, "Brain protein may explain why girls talk more than boys", CBS News, 2/22/2013:

Previous studies have shown that women speak an average of 20,000 words a day, whereas men only speak 7,000, according to USA Today.

"New Study Gives Scientific Explanation For Why Women Talk More Than Men", CBS New York 2/22/2013:

According to a new study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the average woman speaks about 20,000 words a day. The average man, meanwhile, speaks a mere 7,000 words.

Chris Gayornali, "Why women tend to talk more than men", The Week 2/22/2013:

Studies have long suggested that the average woman speaks about 20,000 words a day. The average man, on the other hand, hovers closer to 7,000. That means in one year, a Chatty Cathy could wind up speaking 4.7 million more words than a member of the quieter sex, or the rough equivalent of narrating War and Peace in its entirety… eight times. The reason for this has long been unclear to scientists, and it's why a team of researchers at the University of Maryland sought to find a biological underpinning for why women tend to have a natural gift for gab.

Karen Hall, "As I was saying, women talk a lot", The Windsor Star 2/23/2013:

This just in: Women talk more than men.

Scientists at the University of Maryland in Baltimore broke this startling news, having spent lots of time and money to tell us what any long-suffering husband could have answered with a simple grunt.

In a single day, women utter about 20,000 words – 13,000 more than the average guy. And that's just what comes out of our mouths. It doesn't say anything about how many words go into our texts and e-mails.

Margaret Minnicks, "Reason women talk 3 times more than men according to research", The Examiner 2/21/2013:

It had already been established from previous research that women talk almost three times as much as men. However, this new new study tells us why.

Research indicates the following statistics about the number of words women and men speak:  The average woman speaks 20,000 words a day. The average man speaks 7,000 words a day.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine conducted a study and found women’s brains have higher levels of a “language protein” called FOXP2.

Meagan Morris, "Why Do Women Talk More than Guys? Science!", Cosmopolitan 2/21/2013:

Does your guy nag you for talking too much? Shut him down next time by letting him know that women gab more because of…our superior brain activity.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that women talk more—20,000 words per day, compared to 7,000 for men—because of the "language protein" known as FOXP2 embedded in our genius, genius brains.

"Why women are the talkative sex: Women do really talk more than men, a study has concluded", The Telegraph 2/21/2013:

American researchers found females are the more talkative sex because of a special “language protein” in the brain.

The study, compiled by neuroscientists and psychologist from the University of Maryland, concluded that women talked more because they had more of the Foxp2 protein.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that higher levels were found among humans that were women but in rats they were males.

Their findings come after it was previously claimed that ladies speak about 20,000 words a day – more than 13,000 more than men.'

Natasha Wynarczyk, "Why do women talk more than men?", Marie Claire 2/20/2013:

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found a chemical called 'Foxp2' was responsible for the fact the average women speaks 20,000 words a day, 13,000 more than the average man.

Erica Grow, "Women Say Nearly Three Times as Many Words Per Day", WUSA 9, 2/21/2013:

Science is now confirming something that generations of husbands and wives have already known- women tend to do most of the talking. A study by the University of Maryland's College of Medicine found that on average, women speak about 20,000 words per day. Compare that to the average man, who speaks only 7,000 words per day.

The nearly 3:1 ratio may sound suprisingly high, but Lois Finkelstein, a family lawyer in Chevy Chase, says "women are talking to each other, and they might be talking to their spouse, and the spouse isn't listening".

"Why women out-talk men", The Times of India 2/22/2013:

Women are much better at talking than men because it seems females have higher brain levels of a "language protein" called Foxp2 which plays an important role in language development, a new research has shown.

It might explain why women talk nearly three times more than men. The average woman speaks 20,000 words in a day – 13,000 more than the average man, the Daily Express reported.

"Science explains why women talk more than men", The Dubai Chronicle 2/22/2013:

Previous research by Louann Brizendine at the University of California found that women speak an average of 20,000 words daily compared to only 7,000 words for men. This means that on average, women talk nearly three times as much as men.

And so on…

This meme has remained alive at a low level over the past few years — thus we learn from Kelsy Davis, "Women's Resource Center hosts advice event", The Auburn Plainsman 2/8/2013:

Langdon Hall was nearly full 10 minutes before speaker Dr. Lori Hart began her talk on “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About the Opposite Sex.”

The talk was hosted by The Women’s Resource Center as an event for the Women Of Auburn Helping Women program.

The talk centered on the psychological differences between men and women. […] The audience was comprised of nearly all women, with three men present at the event. […]

All though everything Hart spoke about was academically backed, the room filled with laughter at her comedic approach to detailing the differences between the genders

“Communication research tells us women talk more than men,” Hart said. “That’s not a surprise. We don’t need a study to tell us that. There is research that suggests women talk up to 20,000 words a day. That’s just gross. The average man? 7,000 words a day.”

But the recent UMd rat research has kicked it into high gear, apparently because at least one of the study's authors has featured this piece of misinformation in interviews with journalists.



35 Comments

  1. STW said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 10:54 am

    You might argue studies and statistics all you like but it pales to the experience of an hour long car ride with a four year old girl who, on a bet, can't stop talking for more than 20 seconds at a stretch.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    STW, really? You'll throw out statistics on the basis of one female, and one who's several years shy of being a woman?

    The claims aren't about 4 year olds.

    And, while I haven't looked at them, I would guess that the actual studies, the ones that don't show a gender difference, do show individual variation.

  3. Pat McClay said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    My 5 year old grandson gives a running commentary on all he's doing. When not doing that he's asking incessant questions. He occasionally stops to eat. (I hope he's a bit quieter in the classroom!)

  4. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    I take it there was four year-old boy in the car as well as a control?

    [(myl) xkcd explains How it Works:

    ]

  5. Scott J said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    The old saw "the plural of anecdote is not data" seems to apply here. Anecdotes are single points of data distorted behind the lens of the beliefs, sampling biases, memory, confirmation bias, etc. etc. of the person who reports them. At *best* they are isolated counterexamples.

    More to the point, someone who knows a lot more about the sociology/psychology of gender could really make a killing by turning all of this media noise on its head:

    "Rampant false reports of women talking more than men actually due to inherent bias in perceptual differences." Or something like that.

    I mean, even though there's a lack of data supporting the belief that women talk more, that belief is certainly entrenched. Is it for the same, tired old reasons of generic sexism, or is there anything else to it? In other words, the question is not "why do women talk more than men?" because there's no evidence for that. The question *should* be "why do people think that women talk more than men?". Maybe the answer is boring, but maybe it's a fascinating tale of how background sexism distorts perception, or how cultural tropes affect perception, or something like that. I just think someone should figure this out, and then cause a media frenzy about how crazy it is that our dumb sexism makes us think that women talk more.

  6. Dick Margulis said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    I'm not sure that a (perfectly valid) study of college students refutes a general statement about men and women (of a range of ages). I realize that college students are cheap and readily available subjects for all sorts of studies, but that doesn't mean generalizing from that subset to the entire population is always valid.

    [(myl) If you look through the links in the post, you'll find surveys of all known studies of males and females of all ages, with conclusions like this (from Deborah James and Janice Drakich, "Understanding Gender Differences in Amount of Talk: A Critical Review of Research", in Deborah Tannen, ed., Gender and Conversational Interaction, Oxford U Press,1993):

    It is shown that the widely held belief that women talk more than men is unsupported in the literature. Of the studies reviewed that examined mixed-sex interaction, the majority found either that men talked more than women, or that there was no difference between men & women in amount of talk.

    Or my own examination of 5,850 two-party telephone conversations, involving males and females of all ages (very few of whom were college students); in the mixed-sex conversations, the males produced about 6.4% more words than the females.]

    Just to be clear, I'm not trying to defend the three-to-one claim, which may be nothing more than urban myth. But it seems to me that it's worth asking if there's a grain of truth to it, if only because it would be interesting to find out that there really isn't. We might learn, for instance, that the source of that claim may lie in a widely shared perception of some phenomenon or other—something as simple as the higher pitch of a woman's voice creating a false impression that she's uttering more words. (I have no reason to think this is true; I'm just tossing it out as a testable hypothesis.) Or it could be that as people enter middle age there really is a dramatic divergence in loquaciousness between men and women. (Again, it's just a testable hypothesis; maybe it has already been tested and found false, for all I know.)

  7. F said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    Studies show that female journalists will promote invented statistics almost three times as often as male ones.

    I'm sure I read it somewhere …

  8. Howard Tayler (@howardtayler) said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

    I can't speak for STW, but having driven a car with children in it, I got the distinct impression that he was making a joke, and doing so with very effective deadpan.

    Ellen K. missed the joke, which says a lot more about her than about the joke. Or maybe her response was over-the-top deadpan, and I'm missing THAT joke, which says a lot about ME.

    I, for one, am happy to see the myth debunked. I talk a lot. I'm pretty sure my Y-chromosome has nothing to do with this. When I'm in conversational groups, I have to take conscious care not to talk over others, or dominate the conversation, regardless of the gender of the other participants. Listening takes work, so I work at it, because as much as I love to talk, I also love not being seen as a boorish, flap-jawed, heel.

    More studies here would be exciting to see, and I suspect they'd tell us a lot more about the cultures we come from than the chromosomes we carry.

  9. Joe said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    @Dick Margulis,

    Take a look at the Language Log post "Gabby Guys: The Effect Size" linked above. It deals with a range of subject, not just college students.

  10. JRG said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

    I did learn in my neuropsychology class several years ago, however, that there is a neurological difference between the sexes when it comes to language–and is the only neurological difference between the sexes. It is in fact that case, that the parts of the brain that humans use to process language (in a normal brain) are actually larger in women than in men. Conversely, the parts of the brain that are responsible for spatial processing are larger in men than in women. So women tend to develop communication skills sooner and better than most men, on average, though that doesn't mean they talk more, just perhaps more effectively, and men's spatial abilities develop similarly. I remember my prof saying that the next time your husband/boyfriend doesn't want to ask for directions, it's likely because he really doesn't need any!

    [(myl) Either you're the victim of False Memory Syndrome, or your neuropsychology class included misleading information. There are a number of neuroanatomical differences between human males and females, on average, that appear to have nothing to do with language, including overall brain size and the ratio of grey to white matter. And possible differences in language-related structures are complex and contested.]

  11. Faldone said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    Based on the neurological differences in the male and female brains it may be that the the perception we have that woman talk three times as much as men is not due to any actual word count but rather on the amount of sense that they make compared to men.

  12. Anna said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

    Definitely not true at our house. He speaks, he repeats, he restates and expounds and expands on his thoughts. I have given up trying to talk, as he will interrupt and take over, distract or put down almost every time. We both have advanced degrees and I received honors in college and in life. He ridicules my vocabulary in front of friends, even though I have later shown him over and over that my usage was correct.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    I have in the last week finally gotten around to dipping into (after it sat in one of my books-to-get-to piles for a few years) Stephen Anderson's Doctor Doolittle's Delusion, which spends a lot of time reviewing the literature on communicative behavior of various non-human species while arguing the thesis that none of these have "language" in the human sense, not least because the anatomy of homo sapiens has uniquely evolved for language use. There are supposedly very very strong sex-linked differences (with a biological basis — one minor but recurring theme of Anderson's is we actually know significantly more about the biological bases of communication in these other species because they are not subject to the taboos we have against conducting certain sorts of experiments on human subjects) in communication among most of the various heavily-studied species of bees, frogs, and songbirds (ok, ok, so I haven't yet gotten to the primate chapters, which arguably would be most analogous). It is certainly possible in principle either that: a) homo sapiens, rather unusually, displays no sexual dimorphism whatsoever in the parts of its anatomy used for communication; or at least more modestly b) whatever sexual dimorphism there is does not manifest itself in a difference in average words-per-day or any comparable measure. Those are both empirical questions. But I'm not sure why one would start by assuming the absence of any statistically-significant sex differences in this sphere as the default state of the world.

    The stronger claim a) happens of course to be empirically false at least with respect to one quantifiable dimension of language use, in that the median adult male human's speech is (for at least partially anatomically-based reasons) emitted at a lower pitch than the median adult female human's (obviously with a considerable range in both cases, and the male and female ranges overlapping). To the extent there is some data out there (referenced in one of the comments on the metafilter thread linked above) saying that both male and female test subjects misperceived how much women talked compared to men (with both perceiving the females in taped conversations or whatever having talked more than they in fact had), I wonder what work has been done investigating pitch as potentially affecting perceptions/misperceptions in this area. I have a vague sense that negative stereotypes (in a limited and perhaps unrepresentative set of times and places) about overly chatty or gossippy women run more to sopranos than altos, as it were. (I'm not sure if the same is true for men – I don't have a similar sense that jokes/stereotypes about unusually taciturn/uncommunicative males of the stoic-Yankee-Calvin-Coolidge variety run more to basses than tenors.)

  14. Ellen K. said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

    So women tend to develop communication skills sooner and better than most men, on average,…

    Did I miss out on the terms women and men somewhere along the line changing their meaning so that they can apply to groups consisting entirely of children?

  15. Theophylact said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    No, they're potential men and women from the instant of zygote formation, and probably soon eligible to vote in Alabama.

  16. Rubrick said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

    I fear there will be no end to this sort of drivel until these so-called journalists learn to excercise the unused 90% of their brain capacity and stop thinking about sex every seven seconds.

  17. Ron said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    The conventional men vs. women wisdom also holds that women are better listeners than men. Shouldn't it be impossible for women to be speaking more and listening more at the same time? But wait: women are better multitaskers, too. Problem solved.

    Loved the xkcd comic. As usual, I think he nailed it.

  18. David Morris said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    I spend my day surrounded by, talking to and listening to second-language English speakers (except for one colleague). When I'm in the company of first-language English speakers I tend either to talk non-stop (if I've still got extrovert mode switched on), or say nothing at all (if I've run out of extrovert pills and retreated into introvert mode).

  19. bks said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    Scott J., If there's one discipline where anecdotes are data, it's Linguistics.

    –bks

  20. Loconn said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 12:46 am

    Anna, What a bleak picture, and an all-too-common one. Hope you can find a way to leave this jerk.

  21. maidhc said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    Nobody yet has observed that Language Protein would be a great name for a band?

  22. The Absurd Myth that Women Talk More than Men | Susan E. Wigget said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    […] http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4488 […]

  23. Lobelia Toadfoot said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    Misogynists complain about women talking because they don't want to hear what women have to say. And because we live in a white male supremacist society, white males are conditioned to believe that they're more entitled to be heard. Even at In Other Words, a feminist community center, I've sat through discussions monopolized by white males.

  24. Not to mention the excessive reductionism… [Pharyngula] ← Test Blog said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

    […] researchers assumed that women talk more than men, four-year old girls have more Foxp2, therefore their results conform neatly to what they observed in rats. You know all the times that men complain about women talking too much? Apparently there's a […]

  25. Not to mention the excessive reductionism… ← Test Blog said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    […] researchers assumed that women talk more than men, four-year old girls have more Foxp2, therefore their results conform neatly to what they observed in rats. You know all the times that men complain about women talking too much? Apparently there's a […]

  26. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    Is it relevant that it's a rat study? That makes me even more skeptical. That male rats squeak more, not less?

  27. F said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    Jonathan Mayhew:

    You're missing the supposed point. The syllogism runs:

    1. Young male rats squeak more than young females
    2. They tend to have more FOXP2
    3. There is a positive correlation between the FOXP2 level and the squeaking, which is believed to be a causative one
    4. In humans, females tend to have more FOXP2
    5. Therefore women talk more than men

  28. Nathan said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

    On the Internet, no one knows you're a rat.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 23, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    Unless someone rats you out.

  30. Paul Trembath said,

    February 24, 2013 @ 1:48 am

    @Nathan: …you think. ;)

  31. BarryB said,

    February 24, 2013 @ 9:13 am

    To misquote Clemenceau, "Pop science is to science what military music is to music."

  32. Dick Margulis said,

    February 24, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    myl and Joe: Thanks. As I said, having more facts about men and women who are not college students helps. I'm glad those studies were done. I just get twitchy when I see conclusions about all of humanity extrapolated from what usually turns out to be a handful of students at one American college. Glad that's not what was going on this time.

  33. Astrogator’s Logs » Blog Archive » The “Language” Gene and Women’s Wagging Tongues said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

    […] Liberman.  An Invented Statistic Returns (Language Log, Feb. 22, […]

  34. Theodore said,

    February 27, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    You should write a book on invented statistics, titled The Replicators of Falsehood Have More and Bigger Megaphones.

  35. Marjon checkt: Praten vrouwen meer dan mannen? » MarjonBakker.com said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    […] Er is na het verschijnen van The Female Brain wel wetenschappelijk onderzoek gedaan naar de omvang van het woordgebruik onder mannen en vrouwen en wat bleek: Mannen gebruikten gemiddeld iets minder dan 16.000 woorden per dag, vrouwen gemiddeld iets meer. Maar dat verschil is niet statistisch relevant. [4], [5], [6] […]

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