Zombie factoid check

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It's been a few years since I checked for references to the invented "science" of gender differences in talkativeness — and a scan of recent news articles for "words per day" turns up a steady drip of replications.

[link 2/17/2018] Connecting with women with varied language is critical since, according to The Female Brain author Louann Brizendine, women use approximately three times more words per day than men, about 20,000 words to men’s 7,000.

[link 2/5/2018] As an adult, she typically expresses her feelings and thoughts far better than her husband and is often irritated by his reticence. God may have given her fifty thousand words per day and her husband only twenty-five thousand. He comes home from work with 24,975 used up and merely grunts his way through the evening. He may descend into the TV room while his wife is dying to expend her remaining twenty-five thousand words.

[link 1/31/2018] A BBC article noted that women use 20,000 words per day compared to 7,000 for men, giving new meaning to the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

[link 1/25/2018] I read recently that women speak, on average, 13,000 more words per day than men. We talk detail. We also ask a lot of questions, and that’s because we want to know things and keep the lines of communication open. We get accused of talking too much, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe men don’t talk enough.

[link 1/12/2018] The average American woman utters 7,000 words per day while her male counterpart only 2,000.

As far as I can tell, the recent release of The Female Brain movie has not contributed to this trickle of delusion, which leads me to conclude that the "words per day" canard must have been omitted from the film version, though it was prominently featured in the book. (Or maybe it's just that not very many people have seen the movie…)

I also turned up an interesting piece from last June (Steven Hayward, "Liberal sexism and science denialism", Power Line 6/16/2017), which links to 2013 articles in the New York Daily News and the Daily Mail (!) as authorities for the notion that the 20,000 vs. 7,000 fiction is "settled science".

See "An invented statistic returns", 2/22/2013, for some pointers to the cultural archeology of this factoid, and support for the conclusions that

  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.

I can't resist footnoting Mr. Hayward's references with The Daily Mail Song:

But many references to this zombie factoid come from people who are getting it from more reputable sources, or by cultural diffusion.



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 10:15 am

    Does anyone ever study this question in a population that does not consist primarily of college students? There's an intuitive truthiness to the idea that women talk a lot more than men in at least some contexts (age range, education, factory vs. office vs. home, intrafamily vs. social friends vs. strangers, etc.). I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are other contexts where men talk a lot more than women. Nor would I be surprised to learn that it all averages out to about the same. But the context-based differences might be interesting nonetheless.

  2. Peter Erwin said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 11:15 am

    @ Dick Margulis:

    You may be (ruefully?) amused to learn that you asked almost the exact same question ("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)….") almost exactly five years ago, in response to the February 22, 2013 post that Mark linked to above. In his response back then, Mark noted that "If you look through the links in the post, you'll find surveys of all known studies of males and females of all ages…" and referenced his own informal analysis of telephone conversations "involving males and females of all ages (very few of whom were college students)". So there's your answer.

  3. Robot Therapist said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

    I imagined I'd read this claim in Deborah Tannen's popular "You Just Don't Understand", but upon checking, I see she debunks the zombie factoid.

  4. MJ Martin said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    I'm pretty sure that recent studies of mixed gender interactions with transcripts (e.g. Supreme Court, political debates) have shown that in these situations men talk more than women. This was the most recent one on the Supreme Court: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2933016

  5. CL Thornett said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    A Guardian article from the past week. The conclusion is–they don't.


  6. Dick Margulis said,

    February 18, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

    @Peter Erwin:

    Well, at least my thinking is consistent ;-)

  7. ajay said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 6:20 am

    I'm pretty sure that recent studies of mixed gender interactions with transcripts (e.g. Supreme Court, political debates) have shown that in these situations men talk more than women. This was the most recent one on the Supreme Court

    Going by the abstract, that study doesn't show that men talk more than women. What it shows is that men interrupt more than women. Not the same thing.

    It is also based entirely on a very small group – the judges of the US Supreme Court.

  8. Robot Therapist said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 6:24 am

    Tannen's account argues a big difference between public and "at home" settings.

  9. ajay said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 6:26 am

    The Guardian article adduces no evidence one way or the other; it just points out that there is a long history of a) men talking a lot and b) people saying that women talk a lot.

  10. ajay said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 6:33 am

    Arthur C Clarke wrote a story on this subject in 1957 – "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch" – an electrical engineer designs a gadget that will count spoken words in order to settle an argument with his wife about who talks more than the other; as the title suggests, this doesn't end well.

    [(myl) A .pdf of Tales from the White Hart, the collection where this story appeared, can be found here.]

  11. Robot Therapist said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 6:35 am

    Did Clarke explain how it worked?

  12. ajay said,

    February 19, 2018 @ 6:40 am

    Not in detail. It was a short and comic story. (Pitch of voice, I think, to differentiate between the two of them.) The final result shows the husband, to his surprise, that he talks much more than his wife does. He then discovers a small piece of recording tape in the bin, which contains a sample of his own voice that his wife has been playing on a loop while he's out at work, thus driving up his score.

  13. ajay said,

    February 21, 2018 @ 5:12 am

    Editing other people's comments in order to add the helpful footnotes that they didn't think of or couldn't be bothered to put in is premium-level moderating. Thank you.

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