Why men don't listen

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A web search for the phrase "Men don't listen" turns up lots of pop-psychology books and articles. There's Allan and Barbara Pease's relationship self-help book Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps;  an online chapter from the book Be Your Own Therapist with the title "Men Don't Listen; Men Don't Communicate"; another self-help book, by Wayne Misner, that's called just plain Men Don't Listen; an MSNBC Today article "Honey, did you hear me? Why men don't listen"; a BBC News Health article from 2000, "Why men don't listen?". And that's just on the first page.

Most of these books and articles propose a biological basis for the phenomenon.

Thus Rick Ryckeley in The [Peachtree City] Citizen, March 18, 2010, explains :

Spending the better part of my adult life trying to understand the opposite sex, I’ve realized one thing.

It’s a daunting task — a task that I’m incredibly ill-equipped for. Okay, so that’s two things, but they don’t change the fact that when it comes to women, I’m in over my head.

And whether you realize it or not, the rest of you Neanderthals out there are in the same boat. You would be aware of it, if you’d only listen.

Therein lies the root of the problem for most relationships. Women listen to what men say, but men don’t listen to what women say. Or at least that’s what The Wife told me last weekend. Come to find out she had told me the same thing two weeks ago. Apparently, I wasn’t listening. […]

Other than my being a Neanderthal, The Wife has come up with a plausible answer as to why I don’t listen.


Yes, hair.

It seems for some reason the older I get, the more hair falls out of my head and lands in my ears. Once there it takes root, grows like a weed, and blocks sound waves from entering.

This is a joke, obviously, and so Rick's column has no footnotes citing the extensive scientific literature on sex differences in ear-canal hair.  (Yes, there really are some, though Rick's not going to get off the hook by citing them.)  But most of the other references are serious in their attribution of male acoustic inattention to biological sex differences.

One common trope is that males' hearing is simply less sensitive than females' hearing is. I discussed one instance of this idea — coming mainly from Dr. Leonard Sax — in an earlier post and some links therein. Summarizing the (non-)evidence: there is no functionally significant difference between human males and females in auditory sensitivity.

But the "Men don't listen" idea is a powerful one, and there are plenty of other confidently-asserted biological explanations besides ear-canal hair and hearing-threshold differences. In particular, there are some fine specimens in Louann Brizendine's new book The Male Brain. The relevant section is on pp. 40-41, under the heading Tuning Out. (I've added numbers in square brackets to link to the endnotes, which in the book are on p. 150.)

The teen male not only sees faces differently than he did as a boy; he also begins to perceive voices and other sounds differently than he did before adolescence[1]. And his changing hormones can make him hear things differently than girls his age. In Portugal, researchers found that during puberty, estrogen surges in females and testosterone surges in males increase the hearing differences between girls' and boys' brains[2], but the main difference is that some simple sounds, like white noise, are processed differently in the male brain. Liesbet Ruytjens and colleagues in the Netherlands compared the brain activity of seventeen- to twenty-five-year-old males and females as they processed the sound of white noise and as they processed the sound of music[3]. The female brains intensely activated to both the white noise and the music. The male brains, too, activated to the music, but they deactivated to the white noise. It was as if they didn't even hear it. The screening system in their male brains was automatically turning off white noise. Scientists have learned that during male fetal brain development, testosterone affects the formation of the auditory system and the connections within the brain, making it inhibit unwanted "noise" and repetitious acoustic stimuli more than the female brain does[4]. I tease my husband that his brain's acoustic system seems to automatically shut down when I start repeating myself — it's registering in his brain as white noise.

Likewise, when Zoe and her friends talked endlessly about movies, fashion, and other girls, their combined voices just sounded like humming and buzzing to Jake's ears. For him and the other guys, following the girls' rapid musical banter was practically impossible[5]. The best they could do was nod their heads and pretend to be listening.

Note [1], explaining the assertion that "The teen male … begins to perceive voices and other sounds differently than he did before adolescence", cashes out to Krystyna Rymarczyk and Anna Grabowska, "Sex differences in brain control of prosody", Neuropsychologia 45(5):921-930, 2007.

There are two really weird things about this reference. First, it's got nothing to do with changes in teens, male or otherwise — it documents a study whose subjects were all in their late 50s to mid 60s, two thirds of whom had suffered serious strokes of various sorts:

Fifty-two individuals (28 men and 24 women) with unilateral infarction involving the right cerebral hemisphere and 26 (11 men and 15 women) neurologically intact controls (C) participated in this study.

Second, the study found no sex differences of any kind in the intact control subjects. The only differences had to do with interactions between sex and various areas of brain injury:

Post hoc analysis of the group × sex interaction demonstrated that women with frontal damage performed worse in both the linguistic and affective prosody tests than men with frontal damage (p < 0.002), whereas subcortical lesions produced greater impairment in men (p < 0.001) (Fig. 2). No other sex differences reached statistical significance.

Most of you (if you're still with me) will probably want to peel off at this point — or skip ahead to the discussion at the end of the post — satisfied that Dr. Brizendine's new book is more of the same sort of "psychoneuroindoctrinology" found in her first book, in which the  pages and pages of endnotes and references are a sort of Potemkin Village of scientific pretense laid out in support of banal gender stereotypes. But in fairness to Brizendine — and to her readers — I feel compelled to go on with the note-checking to the end of this passage, and perhaps a few of you will want to come along for the ride.

There's some interesting science along the way.

Note [2], backing up the assertions that "In Portugal, researchers found that during puberty, estrogen surges in females and testosterone surges in males increase the hearing differences between girls' and boys' brains", reads:

Rymarczyk 2007 found a sex difference in the brain's processing of tone of voice. For more on sex differences in brain chemistry and the sex-determining gene located on the Y chromosome, see Wu 2009 and Pau 2009.

A third weird thing: none of the notes relating to these paragraphs seem to reference any work done in Portugal. Either the author neglected to include a reference, or there's a reference somewhere earlier that I've missed, or there was some other lapse on her part or on mine.

Rymarczyk 2007 is the the same paper just discussed, and again, there's nothing in it about hormone surges in teens. Its conclusion, again,  is that (in 60-ish subjects)

We examined the possibility that the effectiveness of prosody processing may differ between the sexes. Contrary to our expectations, we did not find any significant differences in the ability of healthy men and women to comprehend emotional intonation.

Furthermore, the paper's authors are based at the Department of Neurophysiology, Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, Warsaw, Poland. Which starts with the same letter as Portugal, but still…

Wu 2009 cashes out as M.V. Wu et al., "Estrogen masculinizes neural pathways and sex-specific behaviors", Cell 139(1):61-72, 2009, which is about "activating male-specific aggression and urine marking" in mice, and concludes that "aromatization of testosterone into estrogen is important for the development and activation of neural circuits that control male territorial behaviors". There's nothing in it about hearing, auditory attention, or humans. Its authors are all at UCSF or in Japan.

Pau 2009 apparently cashes out as T.I. Paus et al., "Sexual dimorphism in the adolescent brain: Role of testosterone and androgen receptor in global and local volumes of grey and white matter", Hormones and Behavior 57(1) 2010. (It was published online during 2009.) This study comes to some general conclusions about sex differences in brain anatomy, as summarized in this table:

And it relates this differences to testosterone levels among adolescents, as summarized in this graph:

Absolute and relative volumes of white matter (top half) and grey matter (bottom half) plotted as a function of bioavailable testosterone (in nmol/L) in male adolescents with the short (left column) and long (right column) variant of the androgen-receptor gene. The lines represent the regression equation with 95% confidence intervals. R2 indicate the amount of variance in the respective volume explained by testosterone and p-values indicate statistical significance of a given correlation.

This is extremely interesting, but there's nothing about effects on hearing. And the authors are based in Nottingham, Quebec, and Penn State, none of which are in Portugal.

Note [3] backs up the assertion that in a study in the Netherlands, "female brains intensely activated to both the white noise and the music. The male brains, too, activated to the music, but they deactivated to the white noise. It was as if they didn't even hear it. The screening system in their male brains was automatically turning off white noise".

The note reads

Ruytjens 2007 found the male brain screened out white noise better than the female brain. For more on gender differences in auditory processing, see Voyer 2001 and Ikezawa 2008.

That first reference cashes out to L. Ruytjens et al., "Functional sex differences in human primary auditory cortex", Eur J Nucl Med Mol Imaging 34(12):2073-81, 2007. The abstract:

We found a sex difference in activation of the left and right PAC ["primary auditory cortex"] when comparing music to noise. The PAC was more activated by music than by noise in both men and women. But this difference between the two stimuli was significantly higher in men than in women. To investigate whether this difference could be attributed to either music or noise, we compared both stimuli with the baseline and revealed that noise gave a significantly higher activation in the female PAC than in the male PAC. Moreover, the male group showed a deactivation in the right prefrontal cortex when comparing noise to the baseline, which was not present in the female group. Interestingly, the auditory and prefrontal regions are anatomically and functionally linked and the prefrontal cortex is known to be engaged in auditory tasks that involve sustained or selective auditory attention. Thus we hypothesize that differences in attention result in a different deactivation of the right prefrontal cortex, which in turn modulates the activation of the PAC and thus explains the sex differences found in the activation of the PAC.

Finally something relevant to hearing and attention! But the male "deactivation" (relative to baseline) was just in the right prefrontal cortex, not in the brain as a whole. And the difference in PAC responses was only found  to be significant in an ROI ("region of interest") analysis, not in an overall SPM ("statistical parametric modeling") analysis, because "The ROI analysis pools the data of all voxels in the PAC and gives a reduced standard error, resulting in a higher t-value and hence more power".

Here are their figures showing the ROI differences in the PAC:

And the pretty blue prefrontal region of decreased activation:

What's not clear to me about this was whether it's a reproducible fact about men vs. women, or a fact about these particular 10 men and 10 women and their responses to this particular experiment. Specifically, did the men "tune out" the white noise (to a degree) because that's the way their brains are built, or because that's how (some of them) felt about this experiment?

That's not an idle question. In an earlier post, I documented a study where a simple change in the instructions to subjects — whether or not to pay attention to the content of a broadcast — completely reversed the sex difference in "most comfortable listening level". Without the instruction to pay attention, the females' MCL was 10.8 dB lower than the males' — but with the instruction, it was 9.7 dB higher:

Male 47.9 (10.1) 50.4 (13.1)
Female 57.6 (12.5) 41.2 (9.4)

That kind of attentional effect would almost certainly show up in PET scans, but it might very well be a cultural difference, or at least one having more to do with assiduousness in following experimenters' instructions.

Brizendine's additional references "Voyer 2001 and Ikezawa 2008" are D. Voyer and J. Flight, "Gender differences in laterality on a dichotic task: The influence of report strategies", Cortex 37(3):345-62; and S. Ikezawa et al., "Gender differences in lateralization of mismatch negativity in dichotic listening tasks", International Journal of Psychophysiology 68(1)41-50, 2008.

The first of these papers (whose authors are based in New Brunswick, Canada) emphasizes the just-noted effect of instructions, in four different versions of encounters with the same stimuli:

It was hypothesized that improved control of report strategies would increase the likelihood of detecting significant gender differences in laterality. This was confirmed when results showed no significant gender differences in laterality for the free recall and order of report control conditions, whereas focused attention produced marginal gender differences and clearly significant differences were obtained in the ABX discrimination condition.

The second paper (whose authors are based in Japan) found that "mismatch negativity" (an ERP indication of the pre-attentive detection of "oddball" acoustic stimuli) is not lateralized for tones in either sex, but is lateralized to a much greater extent for males than for females in the case of phonetic stimuli.

Neither paper tells us anything relevant about brain structures or mechanisms that would explain an increased male propensity or ability to "tune out" uninteresting sounds, or a testosterone-driven inability to focus on female voices.

Note [4], backing up the assertion that "Scientists have learned that during male fetal brain development, testosterone affects the formation of the auditory system and the connections within the brain, making it inhibit unwanted "noise" and repetitious acoustic stimuli more than the female brain does", is again Ruytjens 2007. The note adds:

For more on fetal brain development and the effects of testosterone on hearing, see Beech 2006 and Cohen-Bendahan 2004.

That's J.R. Beech and M.W. Beauvois, "Early experience of sex hormones as a predictor of reading, phonology, and auditory perception", Brain and Language 96(1):49-58; and C.C. Cohen-Bendahan et al., "Prenatal exposure to testosterone and functional cerebral lateralization: A study in same-sex and opposite-sex girl twins", Psychoneuroendocrinology 29(7):911-16.

The Beech and Beauvois paper (whose authors are based in Leicester) examines the relation of finger-length ratios (which are believed in turn to correlate with fetal testosterone) to performance on various auditory and linguistic tasks. In some cases there are significant effects, and in others cases not. The key hypothesis (which remains somewhat controversial) relates to "possible effects of androgens on early brain development impairing aspects of the temporal processing of sounds by the left hemisphere", which is a reference to Paula Tallal's theory that the left hemisphere of the brain is specialized for processing more rapidly-changing sounds. There's nothing relevant to male "tuning out".

The Cohen-Bendahan et al. paper (whose authors are based in the Netherlands and the UK) uses dichotic lateralization as a way to argue for the effects of prenatal testosterone:

An auditory–verbal dichotic listening task (DLT) was used as an indirect method to study hemispheric specialization. Firstly, we established a sex difference on the DLT. Compared with SS girls, OS twin boys showed a more lateralized pattern of processing verbal stimuli. Secondly, as predicted OS girls had a more masculine pattern of cerebral lateralization, than SS girls. These findings support the notion of an influence of prenatal T on early brain organization in girls.

Their Figure 1:

Scattergram of the Laterality Index (LI; Lambda) as measured with the Dichotic Listening Task (DLT) for the Opposite-sex (OS) girls, Same-sex (SS) girls, and OS boys. The error bar represents the 95% mean confidence interval LI for each group.

As you can see, the effect is persuasive, but not nearly categorical enough to motivate generic-plural statements about "male brains" and "female brains".

Note [5] backs up the assertion that "when Zoe and her friends talked endlessly about movies, fashion, and other girls, their combined voices just sounded like humming and buzzing to Jake's ears. For him and the other guys, following the girls' rapid musical banter was practically impossible."

The note reads:

Schirmer 2002 studied sex differences in neural processing of emotional words, and found the tone and meaning of emotional words were processed faster in females than in males.

That's A. Schirmer et al., "Sex differentiates the role of emotional prosody during word processing", Cognitive Brain Research 14(2):228-33.

At this point, you probably won't be surprised to learn that there's nothing whatever in that paper (whose authors are based in Leipzig) to support the notion that girls' "combined voices just [sound] like humming and buzzing" to teen male ears. Nor does the research even support the weaker position that "the tone and meaning of emotional words were processed faster in females than in males".

In this study, lexical decision time (how long it takes to determine whether a stimulus is a word or not) was the dependent variable. The independent variables included whether words have a semantically "positive" or "negative" meaning (i.e. have happy or unhappy associations); whether they were preceded by an irrelevant (and semantically neutral) "priming" sentence produced with  a "happy" or "sad" intonation; and whether the priming sentence was 0.2 seconds before the target word, or 0.75 seconds before it.

Mean reaction times (±1 S.E.M.) for lexical decisions plotted as a function of target valence. Open circles together with dotted lines indicate a positive prime prosody, closed circles together with solid lines indicate a negative prime prosody. Experiment 1 (ISI 200 ms) is presented in (a), male subjects and (b), female subjects. Experiment 2 (ISI 750 ms) is presented in (c), male subjects and (d), female subjects.

The sex differences were fairly small in all conditions — all the differences appear to be within a standard error, which since there were 16 subjects of each sex means that the biggest sex differences were about a quarter of standard deviation.

The simplest way to describe the differences would be this. At the short (200 msec) inter-stimulus interval, the responses of the male subjects were (taken as a whole)  unaffected by the (happy or sad) prosody of the priming sentences. The only effect for the male subjects (in the short-ISI condition) was that positive-meaning target words were slightly slower than negative-meaning words. The female subjects (in the short-ISI condition) behaved roughly like the males (though  they reacted a little more slower) for the positive-prime prosody words, but for the words primed with a negative-prosody sentence, the positive-meaning words were on average a bit slower than the negative-meaning words.

At the long (750 msec) ISI, the patterns of the male and female subjects were roughly reversed.

The authors interpret this to suggest that the effect of the "happy" or "sad" intonation of the priming sentence was taking a few tenths of a second longer to affect the behavior of the males than the females. This is plausible, though other explanations also come to mind.

But in any case, it's not true that "the tone and meaning of emotional words were processed faster in females" — in the short ISI experiment, the word meanings seem to be processed faster by the males, though it's plausible that the intonational priming is taking longer to have an effect.

And there's certainly nothing about this at all that provides any support whatever for the view that teen boys can only perceive teen girls' speech as meaningless "humming and buzzing".


Q: So is it true that men tend to "tune out" what women say, more than women tend to "tune out" what men say?

A: I'm not sure. This is certainly something that many people believe. Of course, many people believe that Blacks are lazy, Jews are greedy, Irish are drunks, Poles are stupid, and so on.

Q: If it's true, is it because men have less sensitive hearing, or because they simply can't process women's voices very well, at least after puberty?

A: No, both of those ideas are complete nonsense, as far as I can tell.

Q: Could it be because men are generally better than women are at focusing their attention so as to ignore auditory stimuli that they find uninteresting or obnoxious?

A: Maybe — but the evidence for this is meager at best. In particular, I don't know of any direct tests of the hypothesis. The only relevant evidence that Brizendine cites comes from a study where a small number of subjects were made to listen to music and to white noise, without being given any particular reasons or motivations to attend closely to any of the stimuli. ("Subjects were instructed to close their eyes, not to move during the scans, and to listen to the auditory stimuli", but there was no task that tested whether they attended or not.)  PET scans suggested that the males tended to tune out the white noise more than the females did. The subjects were 10 male and female Dutch university students (whose backgrounds are not clear — perhaps the males were mostly drawn from a different subject area than the females?), in the context of an experiment run by women; so the universality of the results is open to question, as usual in sex-difference experiments done by psychologists.

Q: Are there any other biological explanations still in the running?

A: The effect of sex differences in ear-canal hair has never actually been tested, as far as I know. Really, old guys do tend to get hair in their ears. Must be there for something.

Q: Is there any plausible reason to expect the biology to work according to this stereotype?

A: Some have suggested that maybe there was an evolutionary advantage for (putatively male) hunters to be able to "tune out" irrelevant stimuli so as to keep their attention focused on potential prey animals. As with most other such plausible stories, there's no evidence for this, as far as I know. And I suppose that you could make an equally plausible argument about how our female ancestors needed to be able to ignore distracting stimuli while engaged in delicate (putatively female) tasks like spinning, weaving and sewing.

Q: Might there be historical or cultural reasons for the stereotype of male inattention to female speech?

A: You tell me…

Well, in the unlikely event that you're still reading, you've wasted another perfectly good hour on yet another application of explanatory neurophilia to gender stereotypes. Of course, wonky biological explanations are often cited in other areas as well:

Note that in this case, it's the mom who "doesn't listen". Maybe she was exposed to too much of her son's fetal testosterone.


  1. Larry Lard said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    I love these Brizendine take-downs, and this one is a tour de force. But it all raises the question, does what is presented in the book fall into the category 'lies' or the category 'bullshit' (a distinction introduced to me by LL)? Or a third category?

    [(myl) I'd put it this way. Lawyers, politicians, journalists, teachers — people with a story to tell — are always tempted to "spin" as much as the audience allows. "Facts" are subjected to a sort of telephone game of serial exaggeration and distortion, so as to fit them optimally into the narrative. The story-tellers who prosper tend to be the ones who do this to the maximum extent allowed by the story-telling context. Those who go too far may get the reputation of being unreliable or even dishonest, so there's a sort of spin-equilibrium in each subculture: certain kinds of distortion, and certain particular distortions, are fair game, while others are viewed as immoral or even illegal.

    The culture of science involves fairly elaborate safeguards designed to keep such exaggerations and distortions to a minimum. These practices are far from being completely successful, but they do have an effect. As I understand it, the culture of law has an analogous (though very different) set of standards.

    Popular science writing falls along a spectrum, ranging from no-holds-barred spinning, where not even the adversarial culture of politics imposes any restraints, to careful and honest attempts to explain real science to a mass audience. Traditionally, the lucrative genre of self-help books falls towards the no-holds-barred end of the scale.

    What's unusual about Louann Brizendine's work is that she deploys an array of endnotes and references — occupying nearly as many pages as her text does — in a style that seems characteristic of serious non-fiction and even of primary scientific writing, while the style of her texts seems much more like the more unconstrained sorts of pop psychology.

    What's the subjective experience of spinners, in any of the subcultures from physiology to politics? Do they understand what they're doing, or do they become part of their own deluded audience? I suspect that it varies.]

  2. Arjan said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    Well, I may have wasted another hour (or less) reading this, but it must have taken you a lot longer to write it all down. Thanks! ;)

    @Larry: My bet would be on 'bullshit in its technical sense'.

  3. Thomas Westgard said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    I have a theory that this comes, not from the experiences of most men and most women, but from the experiences of a subset of people whose interest in establishing blame is particularly intense.

    In my personal experience, when men speak negatively about women, it usually takes the form of saying that they produce a never-ending stream of complaining. Unless I'm badly misinformed, it IS scientifically accurate to say that women produce more words in a day.

    [(myl) In this case, I'm afraid that you are in fact badly misinformed. But it's true that there's a set of (apparently false) gender stereotypes that reinforce one another: women talk (and complain) too much, so men tune them out.]

    If Borderline Personality Disorder is significantly underdiagnosed, that would mean there are large numbers of women who constantly complain to their intimate partners, all the while looking for some sign that they are about to be abandoned. (BPD is mostly suffered by women.) BPD also focuses the sufferer on blaming others, explaining the focus on the refusal to listen, rather than on what was said.

    But all of that depends on a theory of widespread, underdiagnosed BPD, which is an emerging theory. Time will tell.

    [(myl) I'll wait to read your book The Borderline Brain. It should sell well.]

  4. language hat said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    Q: So is it true that men tend to "tune out" what women say, more than women tend to "tune out" what men say?

    A: I'm not sure. This is certainly something that many people believe. Of course, many people believe that Blacks are lazy, Jews are greedy, Irish are drunks, Poles are stupid, and so on.

    While I appreciate your dedication to scientific method and enjoy your takedowns of pseudoscience, the attitude that nothing is true unless it can be scientifically proved (by the methods at hand in our current state of knowledge) can lead to solipsism (how do we know other people exist?) and complacency (if you can't prove to my satisfaction that you're oppressed, I'll assume you're deluded). In this case, while of course physiological explanations are absurd, it is clearly the case that historically men have not paid attention to women's needs, desires, and capabilities; this is why the women's movement exists. So while it is nonsense to think that men literally can't hear what women are saying, it makes perfect sense that they don't pay attention to much of it, either because it doesn't interest them or because it would make them uncomfortable to acknowledge it. (Classic case in point: the male assumption, back in the single-breadwinner Father Knows Best days, that women had it easy, having nothing to do all day but sip drinks and gossip. To acknowledge the endless burden of housework and childcare would have made them uncomfortable.)

    tl;dr: Men can hear women perfectly well, it's just that they often choose not to listen.

    [(myl) Even if everything that you say is true, it might also still be true that individual women have been on average just as prone to tune out the chatter — or ignore the concerns — of individual men as vice versa. Certainly that's been the premise of many novels. But in any event, the question under discussion is whether there's a neurophysiological reason for an asymmetry. And the reason, in this case, for asking for scientific evidence is that writers like Brizendine and Sax and Gurian assert, authoritatively and with footnotes, that their positions are supported or even established by recent scientific research.]

  5. language hat said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    Unless I'm badly misinformed, it IS scientifically accurate to say that women produce more words in a day.

    You are badly misinformed (you should read the Log more often), and your comments about Borderline Personality Disorder are bizarre and insulting.

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    You're being very unfair to Brizendine. "Poland" starts with the same first TWO letters as "Portugal."

  7. Emily said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 10:14 am


    First of all, a quick google search will tell you how the idea that women produce vastly more words per day than men. I'll give you three guesses. Brizendine's famously popular, famously unsupported spew of gender stereotype naturalization, The Female Brain (2006) states that women produce 20,000 words a day, while men produce a meager 7,000. In fact, if you would like further proof that this is a load of nonsensical drivel, you can read this article from The Guardian, in which our own Mark Liberman concludes that it was probably a guesstimate (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2006/nov/27/familyandrelationships).

    If you would like some reliable information on the matter, you might want to look at Janet Holmes's work "Women's Talk in Public Contexts" (1992) or Leet-Pellegrini's "Conversational dominance as a function of gender and expertise" (1980).

    Finally, could it possibly be that BPD is found so often in women because the significantly under-diagnosed population you mentioned is comprised mostly of men?
    Just a thought.

  8. Sili said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    A woman who listens despite the claims of her husband.

    (Next link not relevant here, but I don't think it's worth emailing for an example of anti-wordrage-rage.)

    As always I'm thankful that this is your hobby.

  9. John Walden said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Science is often presented as a choice between 'I could have told them that and they'd have saved themselves a fortune' when the results seem to have been produced by the Department of the Bleedin' Obvious:

    'Pounding Rock'n'Roll DOES make you drive faster'

    or "Who'd have thought it?" when we are surprised:

    'Pounding Rock'n'Roll does NOT make you drive faster'

    Popularised science seems to under pressure to either completely support the stereotype or completely debunk it, whereas a great deal of "real" science is well protected by "may" might" and "perhaps".

  10. Tatyana said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    Emily, you shouldn't have bothered: you're presumed apriori to be a producer of white noise.

  11. Bill Walderman said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    "the attitude that nothing is true unless it can be scientifically proved (by the methods at hand in our current state of knowledge) can lead to solipsism (how do we know other people exist?) and complacency (if you can't prove to my satisfaction that you're oppressed, I'll assume you're deluded)."

    The other side of the coin is that reliance on impressionistic and scientifically untested judgments about groups of people leads to prejudices like "Blacks are lazy, Jews are greedy, Irish are drunks, Poles are stupid," and women can't do physics, etc.

  12. Ned Danison said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Here's a benefit of the doubt, but probably too much of one: What if Brizendine's original manuscripts had matching text and endnotes, but over the course of negotiations with her editors at Morgan Road Books, the text "evolved" while the endnotes stayed the same? I wonder how much of this happens in the world of popular science writing.

    [(myl) That's certainly possible, though the endnotes are linked to the text by quoting the last five or six words of the relevant segment of text, as well as citing the page where the text segment is to be found. So some co-evolution of the text and endnotes would be required, at least to keep the text references consistent.

    In reference to B's earlier book, I suggested the opposite pattern, to explain the fact that some of the references had some keywords in common with the assertions they were supposed to back up, but no relevant content: perhaps the endnotes were created after the text was written, by someone using keyword search under time pressure.]

  13. Christian DiCanio said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    It has long been known that men speak more than women, and this is by no means a recent finding (Swacker 1975, Kramer 1975, Edelsky 1981). Also consider that in a mixed sex group, men are responsible for 96% of all interruptions (Zimmerman and West, 1975). Given these two sets of findings, I've long been convinced that in conversation, men are not attuning to what others are saying (whether they be male or female is irrelevant). They are, instead, thinking of their next statement they are going to issue. Their attention is not focused outward at all, but inward.

    [(myl) These ideas, and especially Zimmerman and West 1975, are often cited, but in fact this presentation of their conclusions is just about as misleading as Dr. Brizendine's work is. Zimmerman and West based their conclusions on a small number of transcribed conversations that appear to have been quite unrepresentative. (They looked at 10 male-male, 10 female-female, and 11 mixed-sex "conversational segments", each fairly brief. The 96% figure applies just to the 11 mixed-sex segments.)

    In Yuan, Liberman & Cieri, "Towards an integrated understanding of overlaps in conversation", ICPHS 2007, we found that in several large published conversational corpora, women interrupted a bit oftener than men did:

    (That graph summarizes data from 5.455 5-minute conversational segments.) We did find that both women and men tended to interrupt women a bit more than they interrupted men:

    As for sex differences in amount of talking, that can go either way depending on circumstances, but the differences (in plausible samples) are in any event quite small. (See here for one empirical example.)]

    It would be nice if the media would consider some of these old findings. We reward men/boys who interrupt or who introduce new topics of conversation (but reprimand women for interrupting) and this has the effect of making men bad listeners. It is, of course, a sexier topic saying that such things are biological rather than confronting how we socialize children into certain negative behaviors.

    [(myl) Things have changed since 1975 — there are published conversational corpora in many languages, involving tens of thousands of speakers and comprising tens of millions of transcribed words, with time-aligned audio also available. Many empirical questions of this general type can therefore easily be answered, in ways that others can check and extend or challenge. In my experience, the results tend not to confirm any of the sexist stereotypes out there, including the ones that you've deployed in this comment.]

  14. Janice Huth Byer said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    My theory is stereotypes are on based on universal human traits that only appear more common in those populations, whose cultural norms are more supportive of their expression. Women tell me "all" the time that men don't listen, but that's not my experience.

    Anyway, top-down theories are a plague on all our houses.

  15. It is a phase transition said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to wade through all these references to provide a clearer picture that things are in fact more nuanced, a lot more nuanced, than the way Brizendine portrays them.

    But I have to ask, who ever doubted that?

    [(myl) I'm afraid that the answer, apparently, is "most people".]

    Your "takedown" — as other commenters basking in its scientific clarity call it — ultimately gets through to an audience of a few hundred and is simply impenetrable for the vast majority that read Brizendine's book.

    [(myl) Well, it's a few thousand, at least, but I take your point.]

    If you want to dispute that by calling it an uncharitable and cynical view of the average science non-fiction reader, you should publish a book with the same strict definition of scientific truth and the same exhaustive treatment of methodology and its various interpretations.

    Or you should at least point to one book that aspires to the same broad scope ("the entire brain") while discussing the subtleties of various putative facts. Of course, this book should have sold more than a few hundred copies to be any different from a blog read by a few hundred.

    [(myl) There's apparently a large audience for "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" books, pseudo-scientific or otherwise. The market for "Men and women are remarkably similar in cognitive terms, especially given the large cultural differences in their experiences" appears to be much smaller. But Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain is pretty good, if you're looking for a recent broad-scope brain book that deals accurately with the subtleties.]

    This also makes me wonder: Would you consider any similar undertaking that aims to make a vast domain of scientific pursuit accessible and enjoyable to readers to be fundamentally disingenuous.

    [(myl) No.]

    The way I see it, this post is an exercise in carefully examining the trees in a painting of vast landscape and declaring these to be false and artificial in the detailing of the bark's texture and the patterning of leaves. True, but how would you paint the landscape? Without any positive suggestions in that direction, your implicit criticism is based on the false premise that she is aspiring to the same goal you are with this blog. Your post also suggests that the entire landscape, by extension, is flawed in its rendering, that the book is explanatory neurophilia all over.

    [(myl) Based on examining a fairly large sample of Louann Brizendine's arguments, I'd say that lay readers should read her books as if they were presented without scientific support, because the claimed scientific support is generally somewhere between irrelevant and contradictory to her points.]

    Many readers pick up books to sate their own curiosity on topical questions, and "why do men tune women out" falls into that category. To say the jury is still or that it isn't at all clear whether that is true is no answer at all. One could arrive at such agnosticism without buying the book or bothering to read any literature.

    [(myl) Sad but true. The problem is, when someone claims to be able to settle a question like "are men genetically predisposed to tune out what women say?" on the basis of scientific evidence, it's a good idea to check whether their claims are valid. If someone (for example) puts forward "scientific" evidence that Blacks are genetically shiftless, or Jews are genetically avaricious, it's reasonable to examine the claimed evidence rather closely. And if the evidence turns out to be bogus — as I expect it would in those cases — it would be odd to counter "well, you didn't prove that the generalization was untrue, you just gave a lot of boring details debunking this attempt at proof".]

    A strongly argued perspective is better if only because it provokes vociferous denunciations and rebuttals. To only have these strong assertions to pander to people's extant prejudices would be wrong, but both her books have enough non-controversial science in them that readers would otherwise not bother to take in without the leavening of answers -to-burning-questions.
    And if we do want to come up with arbitrarily defined objective evaluations of net benefit, I would say this: I will remember a lot more science from her book than from this post.

    [(myl) What examples of science do you remember from the books? More specifically, can you find a single section in either book that presents accurate science unalloyed by falsehoods pretending to be science?]

    You could even test that — take this post down and poll visitors asking what they internalized and how that moved them from their previously held beliefs.

    [(myl) People who have read effective debunking articles (and let's grant for the sake of argument that this is one such) generally recall that they shouldn't trust the person whose conclusions are debunked; andthat they shouldn't make public-policy decisions (or personal decisions either) based on the idea that those conclusions are scientifically established. That's my main goal in writing posts of this kind.]

  16. Christian DiCanio said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    [(myl) Things have changed since 1975 — there are published conversational corpora in many languages, involving tens of thousands of speakers and comprising tens of millions of transcribed words, with time-aligned audio also available. Many empirical questions of this general type can therefore easily be answered, in ways that others can check and extend or challenge. In my experience, the results tend not to confirm any of the sexist stereotypes out there, including the ones that you've deployed in this comment.]

    I appreciate the additional information. I wasn't aware of some of the newer research contradicting the older findings – or rather, what people have discussed wrt the old findings. It just seemed to me that there was some evidence that not all things attentional need be explained biologically. There were older findings that provided an apparently better behavioral explanation. In my experience, the media tends to jump at the newest neurophysiological findings relating to sex which confirm their own stereotypes – or – publish fluffy pieces (like this one) which attempt to sound scientific but, again, are just reaffirming gender stereotypes.

    I apologize if my comment was sexist. If so, I rescind it. It was absolutely not my intention to perpetuate false stereotypes. My apologies for any offense I caused.

    [(myl) No offense whatever, at least not on my part. You just repeated what you've read or what you've been taught — there are thousands of references out there to Zimmerman & West 1975. And I don't mean to call their motives or the honesty of their work into question — the point is just that their work, which was based on a rather small sample that turned out not to be at all representative, was accepted for so long in part (I think) because it fits the "rude boys vs. nice girls" stereotype so nicely.]

  17. Jason said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    This is actually quite fascinating. Of course I think the science is silly, but I was just reading a discussion on whether there are inherent differences between men and women which are not only due to education, and this seems to fit the bill. I still wonder how much of this reported science on development is influenced by education.

  18. Thomas Westgard said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

    The reactions one gets to a mention of BPD are always fascinating, and the above is not an exception. There was no statement about women in general (see "subset," supra), let alone no judgment of superiority either way. I did say that being around women with BPD is unpleasant, which was redrafted by some women to be a statement about all women. In other words, the reactive comments came from people who considered themselves to be somehow included in, or addressed by, what I said. As I say, fascinating.

    As to my non-fact: So Deborah Tannen misled me, and in fact women do not use more words in a day than men. That is good to know. It doesn't invalidate the theory that the perception under discussion comes from a subset of speakers with a bigger stake in the outcome than most.

  19. George Amis said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    Thanks for the post. and for your responses to the comments.

    I suggest that it might be useful to regard the footnotes in books like Brizendine's as decorative or ornamental, rather than as serving the function of actual referring the reader to sources of confirmatory (or contradictory) research. As ornament, they add literal and figurative heft to the book, and either B., or possibly her publishers, seem to be quite certain that nobody is actually going to check them.

  20. Roger Lustig said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    @George: "quite certain that nobody is actually going to check them" comes close to the technical description of bullshit mentioned above.

  21. Copacetic said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:31 am

    I cannot express how much I love these repeated, brutal smack-downs. Many thanks for the public service.

  22. CBK said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 12:38 am

    Part of my interest in Brizendine’s books is trying to understand how she produced them. That is, I’m trying to understand her beliefs about science as well as how her methods produce the strange details of her work, for example, quoting a self-help book in The Female Brain and putting “Portugal” instead of (presumably) “Poland.”

    A Google search on “Louann Brizendine Susan Wels” reveals that the latter is sometimes listed as the second author of The Female Brain (see, e.g., Powell’s Books. I suspect that the publisher sent out information that included Wels as the second author early in the process and it didn’t get changed. Wels works as a writer and editor (according to her web site). Wels’s participation might help to explain the self-help book reference and some other oddities in The Female Brain.

    A post here which is supposed to have been written by Brizendine says that “i have found that the ENDNOTES program is the best way to organize your references and keep a quick access to the link to the reference and it keeps a copy of the abstract right in the program, so you can access it to check wording later as you are” [remainder is not displayed]. Perhaps Brizendine is relying heavily on abstracts in her writing. That might help to explain part of the “Potemkin village” relationship of references to assertions.

    Moreover, importing citations to Endnote is not straightforward in all databases, according to Wikipedia. Sometimes one has to save as text, then (presumably) paste each piece into Endnote. That might explain the error of “Pau” instead of “Paus.” “Poland” may have gotten abbreviated to “Po” in Endnote and reconstituted as “Portugal.” And, I wonder if the “first author date” format is the default in Endnote.

    None of this is meant to be conclusive, of course.

  23. A guy watching TV said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:34 am

    @George: Maybe they're neither functional nor ornamental, but instead these notes exist to give the illusion of backup.

    That is to say: placebic endnotes.

    @Julie: If I'm attending to the TV, then I in fact DO NOT hear you. I don't think you're a nag, dear, and I might even be happy for the reminder, but I'm one of those people who can process only one verbal input stream at a time. Maybe it's because I'm ADD, which I gather does correlate with being male. But the fact is I'm just not cognizant of your words.

    @MYL: You are a Defender Of Truth And Science, and Scourge To Bullshit. Well done, Sir! And thanks for a fascinating hour.

  24. A guy watching TV said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:41 am

    (Apologies to any of you who noticed, unhappily, my messy metaphor.)

  25. Michael W said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 2:21 am

    Tatyana's comment highlights what struck me most about the quoted passage from the book: Even if you allow that the claims about sex differences are correct, the conclusion drawn is that women's speech is indistinguishable from white noise. This is either severely offensive to women (implying their speech to be fundamentally incapable of carrying information) or simply ignorant of what 'white noise' means. Even if she's only half-serious, it doesn't seem like she'd want to perpetuate such a negative view of women.

    Upon closer reading, I suppose I ought to be fair to Brizendine – she only goes as far as to imply that her speech is the same as random sounds.

  26. Rubrick said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 3:47 am

    "It is a phase transition" asks, if Mark Lieberman were to write a book which tackled such a subject himself, what it would look like. From what I've seen, this could easily be determined by Mark's spending five or six days writing such a book. Three if he took a break from Language Log.

  27. möngke said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    As some commenters have already alluded, the key question here might be "why do such stereotypes persist" – in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary? I think that writers like Brizendine only take advantage of the stereotypes' ubiquity in order to earn money, rather than the other way around (ie. the stereotypes being introduced and reinforced by popular science writers). Saying that there are specific social/cultural reasons for it doesn't help much unless we're able to find out what these specific reasons are, and how they support certain people's perceptions on how the world works and how it looks like. These might be anything from political economy (quite apart from conspiracy theory-style assertions on how group X rules the world!), internalization of behavioral schemata (through schooling and socialization more generally), or constitution of subject-positions (ie. identity) more broadly.

    Debunking claims is, of course, quite important, at least to make their falsity more public and accessible. But I think that asking why or how people can believe such things is an equally interesting question to ask, which is where disciplines like anthropology should come in to complement our knowledge with a more 'hands-on' consideration of how stereotypes work. As I'm doing a short piece of ethnographic research over the summer on a stereotypical assertion (not this specific one, but also related to language), it would be interesting to see what explanations might work.

  28. Vicki said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I haven't read significantly on this in quite a few years; is Dale Spender's work on women and men in conversation, and the stereotypes about it, still considered valid (in terms of the data she presents, which I remember as, more than actual numbers on who talks how much, "people think women are talking more than men if they talk even close to as often")?

  29. James Wimberley said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    To start another hare, how about correlating the propensity to interrupt with birth order (those dreaded firstborns again!) and family size? I hypothesize that at the dinner table of a typical big family, if you don´t interrupt, you go hungry. These factors would generate wide individual variation completely decoupled (as MYL observed) from gender.

  30. Bloix said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    What we're really talking about, of course, is the delegation of home and personal life to wives and girlfriends. What men "don't listen" to is requests to participate in the maintenance of the home, the needs of the children, and the familial social life. Men listen just fine to what their bosses tell them at the office. But since, as the stereotype goes, they don't really give a flying fuck about their families, they don't listen to what their wives tell them about what's going on at home.

    [(myl) Perhaps, but the Brizendine passage is about teens, and asserts that "when Zoe and her friends talked endlessly about movies, fashion, and other girls, their combined voices just sounded like humming and buzzing to Jake's ears". So alleged disengagement from home life is not central to this version of the story.]

  31. Nathan Myers said,

    April 5, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    Somebody brought up Deborah Tannen. Is she in good graces, or has she been found to be peddling tired stereotypes too?

    Regardless, I found her advice not to treat complaints as requests for suggestions helpful. I don't remember much else, but since I read her, I think of speech (much more than before) as a behavior on par with nest-building than as an attempt to convey meaningful information.

    [(myl) There's some discussion of that particular aspect of Tannen's work here, specifically with respect to its role in the movie White Men Can't Jump.

    Many people, including me, find observations of this kind interesting and useful. Tannen's methods are mainly ethnographic rather than than quantitative, with the strengths and the weaknesses associated with that choice. But in the context of this discussion, what's crucial is that she doesn't assert unfounded relationships to genetically-determined neurophysiology. On the contrary, her general perspective has been to point out that men and women continue to inhabit rather different cultures, both as children and as adults, with inevitable consequences for behavior and attitudes.

    As far as I know, she's mostly agnostic about the role of genes and hormones in determining the nature and consequences of these cultures; and this seems appropriate to me.]

  32. Scott Kiesling said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Someone asked what an anti-"Why men don't listen" book would look like. I am fond of Deborah Cameron's "The Myth of Mars and Venus."

    I find it interesting that this is generally about the biology of hearing, but in my quick reading of all of this, it seems that no one has actually asserted (as opposed to presupposed) that there is evidence that men, in fact, don't listen. I guess hearing is one way to operationalize 'listening,' but it is not exactly the same thing. I can hear my mother perfectly at times and even put in backchannels at the right moment, but I may not be listening in the sense of full attention (Mom, if you are listening, sorry. But I know that you figured it out long ago…). The same goes for some of my students….

  33. chris said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    If you're absorbed in a TV show, and I'm trying to get you to, say, take out the garbage, you're not listening.

    I wonder how much of this "phenomenon" is due to equivocation over the meaning of "listening"? If I (hypothetically) responded "Ok, I'll take it out when this show is over/at the next commercial", you might not personally characterize that as "not listening", but ISTM that a considerable number of women would (unless that's just a stereotype); which reveals that by "not listening" they really mean "not obeying" or even "not obeying quickly enough to suit me".

    And yet, my "not listening" response only makes sense in the context of what you said, so clearly I *was* listening in the strict sense.

    (Am I the only one who finds the use of personal pronouns in this example oddly… personal? I almost feel that this response is as much defensive as analytic — and I don't even live with anyone else at the moment.)

    P.S. To the extent that the phenomenon is real, I would be inclined to blame garden-variety entitlement and arrogance — some men are unfortunately taught that women generally don't have anything important to say that wouldn't have occurred to them (i.e. the arrogant men) already. Physiological explanations are an unnecessary complication unless it can be shown that this already-known social phenomenon is inadequate as an explanation.

  34. Nathan Myers said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    To me, "arrogance" and "not listening" are practically indistinguishable, nearly to the point of definition. The main difference, I think, is a matter of timing. Everybody doesn't listen sometimes, but for the arrogant it's habitual.

  35. Bloix said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

    "Perhaps, but the Brizendine passage is about teens, and asserts that "when Zoe and her friends talked endlessly about movies, fashion, and other girls, their combined voices just sounded like humming and buzzing to Jake's ears". So alleged disengagement from home life is not central to this version of the story.]"

    But the point is that Jake is not listening TO GIRLS. Why? Because Jake isn't interested in what they're talking about. He doesn't care about fashion or movies or some scandalous thing that some girl has done.

    For months I have been listening to high school boys argue endlessly about basketball and I am about to start listening to them argue endlessly about baseball and there isn't any doubt that they listen to each other. And also no doubt that most of the girls don't hear a word of what they're saying.

    [(myl) The theory that teen boys and girls tend to be interested in different (though overlapping) things, and to tune out of conversations about the things they're not interested in, is a plausible one. The theory that testosterone, released into teen boys' blood at puberty, modifies their' brains so that girls' voices just sound to them "like humming and buzzing" is, frankly, nuts.]

  36. Julie said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    Chris: Sorry if my use of pronouns seemed a bit too personal. I was trying to make the point that all of us have selective attention at times.

    Of course a group of people talking about something which you have no interest in starts to sound like "humming and buzzing." To me, the boys' sports arguments sound like that too. It's because they're all talking at once about something which excites them. And if it doesn't excite me, I have no reason to make the effort to follow the conversation. I don't see anything particularly gender-related in this at all.

  37. Private Zydeco said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 3:39 am

    Oughtn't that to be "WHEN men don't listen?"

  38. Men Don’t Listen Well: Myth or Fact? said,

    April 8, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    […] sent me an interesting piece from the University of Pennsylvania Language Log in which the author debunks The Male Brain a sloppily-written pop-science book that attempts to explain why men allegedly […]

  39. NoMan said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 2:42 am

    I'm with Bloix on this. Just some examples:

    [(myl) Long series of tendentious anecdotes, about the need to listen to boring and meaningless stories in order to pick up women in bars, deleted.]

  40. B said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    This is simply not a biological problem. Men, when they ignore women, do so because our sexist society tells them (and the rest of us) that women are stupider and less interesting than men. Women are more likely to listen to men for the same reason.

    [(myl) The trouble with ideological prejudices like this is that there's way to tell whether the asserted fact (an alleged asymmetry in tendency to listen) is true, or whether the asserted cause actually plays a role.

    You're entitled to your prejudices, of course; and I'm entitled to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence.

    The problem with Louann Brizendine's books is that she cites an elaborate array of scientific support for similar generalizations (though she prefers biological to social explanations), although the cited work generally turns out to be irrelvant.]

  41. Urgely Burgeley said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    "There are two really weird things about this reference. " confused me, I thought it was talking about the previous reference, which WAS about teens. I didn't get for a while that it meant the following reference. Maybe due to layout or something.

  42. Urgely Burgeley said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    How applicable are studies made in 1975 to 2010? 1975 is halfway to 1940! The days when the majority of women were expected to stay at home. We should expect a gradual change in cultures to affect the results.

  43. May 2010 Links: The Promise Neighborhoods Program, Federal Budgets, Upward Bound, Centers for Independent Living (CLI), the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), Restricting Fun Too Expensive, and more said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    […] Why men don't listen. Except they do, as this post into the pseudo science of gender brain differences […]

  44. David Walker said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    From what I understand, Adelle Davis (1904-1974), who wrote a popular set of books starting with "Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit", also references lots of scientific papers in her popular books. I recall reading that many of those papers actually had nothing at all to do with what she was talking about in the books.

    Makes me sad…

    [(myl) Do you have a link to a critique of Davis's citation practices that provides some details to back this up?]

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