women recognize emotions more quickly than men do

A recent controlled study found that women discriminate perceived expressions of fear and disgust about 100 milliseconds faster than men do.  For comparison, in designing its search service, Google is concerned to save users 30 to 40 milliseconds of response time.

The study also found the women and men discriminate fear and disgust expressed by women about 50 and 40 milliseconds faster, respectively, than they do fear and disgust expressed by men.  That both women and men are better attuned to communicating with women is consistent with evidence that, in telephone calls, women and men talk longer on average with women than with men.

Perceiving others’ emotions fosters successful social communication.  Cross-species comparative anatomy suggests that females have driven the evolution of social communication.  Significant sex differences in communication are highly plausible.  That the demographics of social media services today are skewed toward women probably isn’t an artifact of a particular culture or social-media service design.

The study also documented the value of multisensory stimuli.  Both women and men discriminated fear and disgust in audio-visual stimuli more quickly than they discriminated those emotions in silent video stimuli. Silent video stimuli, in turn supported faster emotional discrimination than did purely auditory stimuli.  In addition, the study found evidence that cross-modal processing contributed to more rapid emotional discrimination between audio-visual stimuli.  While bit-streams from different sensors are typically highly articulated in digital systems, low-level, cross-modal sensory processing is an important aspect of communication in biological systems.

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The study discussed above is O. Collignon, S. Girard, F. Gosselin, D. Saint-Amour, F. Lepore, M. Lassonde.  Women process multisensory emotion expressions more efficiently than menNeuropsychologia (2009), doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.09.007

Recordings of actors and actresses expressing fear and disgust were presented to 23 women and 23 men participants.  The participants sought to distinguish between the expressions of fear and disgust “as quickly and accurately as possible.” Trade-offs between speed and accuracy are possible. Women were not significantly less accurate than men in any sensory condition, and in most sensory conditions, women were more accurate than men.  See Supporting Fig. 1. Hence compensating for differences in accuracy would not decrease the difference in response times between women and men.

I estimated the numbers above based on a graphical figure (Fig. 3) showing response times at the 50’th percentile of the response time distributions. Because those numbers are my estimates from the printed graph, they are approximate numbers.

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