What is it about?

The key message in this paper is that research reports about sex or gender differences in the human brain often mislead non-expert readers. Problems can arise when authors are over-enthusiastic in their descriptions of what they have found, by treating small differences as ‘profound’ or focusing on just a small proportion of statistically significant findings, while ignoring overall similarities between female and male brains. Or perhaps they adopt an “essentialist”, binary framework, where brain differences are assumed to be pre-programmed by hormones or evolution, while ignoring other plausible origins such as social learning and cultural expectations. Our paper aims to guide readers toward a more accurate and less harmful explanation of any differences that are reported between the brains of women and men, or girls and boys.

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Why is it important?

Our call for caution applies to all scientific reporting, but is particularly relevant to questions of sex/gender differences in the brain, as reports of these attract enormous attention beyond the scientific community. Reports of seemingly objective MRI evidence for fixed, or “hardwired”, differences between female and male brains can serve to sustain harmful stereotypes which can then impact many cultural domains, including parenting, education and career guidance, as well as feeding into issues of self-identity and self-confidence. This is not to deny the importance of studying individual differences in the human brain, including the influence of biological sex, but to ensure that readers are getting the full picture of the small magnitude of any differences found, of the many complex causes and entangled variables, and of the uncertain behavioural implications of any human brain sex/gender differences that are being reported.


This paper is part of an ongoing campaign to ensure that group-level differences in the human brain are not misrepresented, misunderstood, or misused. Care is always needed when making comparisons between groups of different people, and what people might make of any differences reported. I’m working with a wide range of colleagues, tackling fellow researchers, journal editors, science journalists and social media outlets to flag up the problems of ‘spin’ in this field. We’re aiming to help non-specialists better recognize what has been variously described as “neuro-nonsense,” “neuro-trash” and “neuro-hype.” Hopefully this paper will help!

Gina Rippon
Aston University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: How hype and hyperbole distort the neuroscience of sex differences, PLoS Biology, May 2021, PLOS,
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001253.
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