I’m not trying to make women angry by writing this, but I just heard a fascinating discussion on Radio Lab (WNYC radio) about the physiological differences between men and women. In essence, these gender differences may trigger brain reactions that make it harder for a perfectly rational woman to let go of her anger in a work situation – and elsewhere.
Now this is not to say women are even one iota less capable of leading. There are many powerful factors a woman brings to a leadership role, including an ability to access “whole-brain” thinking. From a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania as reported on Philly.com:
“Women had many more powerful communication links between the two hemispheres. What this means is that, at any given moment, a woman is likely to be using her whole brain while a man is using half of his, said Ruben Gur, a neuropsychologist who was one of the study authors.”
That’s not to minimize men either. Each hemisphere we’re told can act as a “complete human.” But it does mean that men may more commonly be led by either right-brain (more intuitive) or left-brain (more logical) thinking, often making them more action-oriented in the moment. While women may be more likely to “combine analytical and intuitive thinking.”
Getting back to women’s brains. Do they stay angry longer?
All that said, the discussion on Radio Lab centered around biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky’s most recent book Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals. In the simplest terms, Sapolsky’s theory is that women’s physiology is different in a way that causes women to take longer on average to release emotions. This can create a lingering physiological tension that may trigger longer bouts of anger and even reignite the anger that a man would have let go already.
Sapolsky explains that a triggered response registers in our body before our brains realize what’s happening. For example, if someone says something that really gets on our nerves, we are already tensing our gut and other muscles before we even know it. Even after the situation is seemingly resolved, women generally speaking are more apt to retain that tension physically.
Though our brain logically knows the argument or tense situation should be over, it is that retained body tension that reignites the feeling of annoyance or anger in a woman – or any men who share this trait, I’m guessing. And in that moment of still feeling the physiological feeling of anger (not the original anger), despite apparent resolution or calming down, all kinds of memories of prior insults or hurts or similar situations can arise, leading to continued angry feelings without any new in-the-moment basis.
Do I believe that Sapolsky is right about women?
As a lifetime woman and an adamant supporter of women rights, as well as the rights of all people to be treated equally, I have nonetheless observed that there are indeed physiological differences. And I like to at least try to look at these objectively, knowing that we may do some things differently – but not necessarily better or worse.
I have also observed that women, at times, do hold on to the feeling of anger longer, especially when they’ve been fully engaged in the fight. I’ve had that happen myself in a tense project meeting, although I can personally attest that I was still able to guide the project and follow through with action steps.
So Sapolsky may be right after all. Then again, as a male, maybe he’s only using half his brain. At the very least, he raises some interesting ideas.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever observed this in yourself or others? Have you been able to move on, even though body cues are telling you you’re still angry?
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