Are women more verbally fluent than men?
A new study conducted jointly by the HuMAN Lab and the Chair for Developmental Psychology, University of Trier (Trier, Germany), examined the question whether women are more verbally fluent than men. Despite the stereotypical appeal of such a sex difference, previous research suggests that it is either very small or does not exist at all. Using a storytelling task normally employed in research on implicit motives, Oliver Schultheiss, Martin Köllner, Holger Busch, and Jan Hofer looked at sex differences in narrated stories across a broad array of samples involving more than 11,000 research participants, covering almost the entire lifespan, and coming from all across the world. Consistent with earlier research, they found that women do not tell longer stories when stories were collected via oral telling. However, when stories were collected in a written format, a medium-sized sex difference in favor of women emerged. This difference could be observed in samples from all geographic regions, suggesting that it does not depend on culture or ethnicity. Intriguingly, however, the female advantage in narrative fluency emerged only in samples tested between puberty and menopause (see Figure).
The figure shows the effect size of the sex difference in narrative fluency (y axis) as a function of average sample age. Prepubertal children and postmenopausal adults do not differ in narrative fluency, but individuals after puberty and before menopause do, with women telling substantially longer stories than men do.
In a subset of their samples, Schultheiss and colleagues therefore examined associations between storytelling fluency and gonadal steroid hormones such as estradiol and progesterone, because after puberty and before menopause these levels of hormones are particularly high and differ between men and women. The authors found that in men and women alike, higher narrative fluency was associated with more estradiol, but not other hormones. Because on average women have higher estradiol than men, this difference translates into higher narrative fluency in women compared to men.
Says Schultheiss, the lead author of the study that has now appeared in Neuropsychology: “It’s amazing to see that although we can clearly replicate earlier findings showing no sex difference in verbal fluency when we look at oral storytelling, we do find this sizeable and extremely robust sex difference in written stories. But this difference can hardly be the source of the old stereotype that women are more talkative than men -- that almost certainly did not stem from people watching women write longer stories than men! Our findings of a clear-cut sex difference for written narrative fluency hint at a more subtle sex difference that exists for as long as women and men differ in their estradiol levels. Where that hormonal difference is absent – before puberty and after menopause – so is the narrative writing difference.”
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