The Essential Difference


Simon Baron-Cohen


Penguin Books






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A very interesting read. Up front I really liked the positioning of the author's work - acknowledging male-female differences is a delicate subject, and tackling the thorny area of stereotyping as being judgemental about people around a set of assumptions. The author states that this reduces individuals to an average, whereas science recognises that many people fall outside the average range for the group.

Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge and has a huge interest in Autism and Apsergers Syndromes. This book seeks to show evidence that suggests that more males than females have a "systemizing" brain and more females than males have an "empathizing" style of brain - stating that "The female brain is predominantly hard wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard wired for understanding and building systems".

His research examines males and females from birth, claiming that children demonstrate gender differences in their abilities to empathise, share and play. Girls as little as a year respond more empathetically to the distress of others through comforting looks, sympathetic words or tonality and sad looks. The ultimate lack of empathy is murder where the sex difference in murder could be a marker that empathising is lower in males - this is greatly simplified and social systems and hierarchies are examined in detail. Girls' speech is also described as more cooperative, reciprocal and collaborative - and they are able to keep a conversational exchange with a partner going for longer. Men tend to spend more time using language to demonstrate their knowledge, skill and status.
Boys tend to spend more time involved in mechanical and construction play than girls - seeming to love putting things together - often after admiring it, taking it apart and starting again. They also like playing with toys that have clear functions such as buttons to press.

The section on biology provided some interesting perspectives on brain dominance - stating there are gender differences in laterality effects - for example, men are more lateralised for language than women, attending more accurately to words heard in the right ear than they can to words on the left.

The book progresses to discuss culture and environment, societal influences such as dressing boys in blue and girls in pink, and how hormone injections may have an impact and change behaviour.

A mix of behavioural and physiological information, perhaps the most fascinating views are around the extremes, where autism lies as the male superior systemizer, not learning from others in any social way, presenting an "empathy disorder". What then of the extreme female - a "hyper-empathizer" potentially disabled by lack of systematic, technical thinking? In our current society where empathy and EQ are encouraged, this does not present such a problem!

This is perhaps a courageous book, given the continual possibility of generalisations - and no real validity or reliability offered around the work. But it is a good read and one I recommend as it opens up some interesting debates and possibilities and Baron-Cohen writes in a formal but conversational way. The Appendices include exercises such as "Reading the mind in the eyes" test, the "Empathy Quotient", "Systemizing Quotient" and "Autism Spectrum Quotient" questionnaires.

Baron-Cohen says that the Mars and Venus books are not helpful from a scientific perspective - and may encourage stereotyping and worse, sexism. Frankly, if we all wear the hat of "generalisation", they can be a fun read - and open our eyes to look at some of the science that may sit behind their views - such as Baron-Cohen's.