When men and women work together, their brains may not take the same approach to co-operating, a new study suggests.
In the new study, the areas of the brain that lit up were synchronised when two guys worked together to do a task, and when two women did, although the areas were different in men and women. In pairs where there was one man and one woman, the brain activity didn’t sync up.
More than 50 years of research has shown that men and women have different ways of cooperating, according to the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“It’s not that either males or females are better at cooperating, or can’t co-operate with each other. Rather, there’s just a difference in how they’re cooperating,” Dr Allan Reiss, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, and the senior author of the study, said in a statement.
In the study, the investigators wanted to understand what happens in the brain when men and women co-operate to cause these differences. They did brain scans on 111 pairs of participants, who were asked to co-operate with each other to complete a computer task. In 39 of the pairs, both participants were men; 34 pairs had one man and one woman; and 38 pairs had two women. None of the participants knew each other before the experiment.
During the computer task, people in the pair each looked at a computer screen, and when a circle on the screen changed colour, they had to press a button. The goal was to press the button at the same time as their partner, but the participants couldn’t talk to each other, and they could not see their partner’s computer screen. The pairs were given 40 tries to synchronise their timing. After each attempt, they were told who pressed the button sooner, and how much sooner they did so.
The researchers found that, on average, the male/male pairs and the male/female pairs performed similarly on the task, and both did better than the female/female pairs.
Researchers also observed that within the same-sex pairs, participants’ brain activity was in sync. Among the same-sex pairs, the more in sync the pairs’ brains were, the better they did on the task, Joseph Baker, a post-doctoral psychiatry researcher at Stanford, and a co-lead author on the study, said in a statement.
In the new study, researchers said, the areas of the brain where activity was synchronised was different in the male/male pairs, compared with the female/female pairs.
In contrast, in the mixed-sex pairs, researchers did not observe such synchronisation of brain activity, which further suggests that each sex uses different cognitive strategies when it comes to co-operation, the researchers wrote.
The study is an early finding in this field and more research is needed to fully understand the underlying brain mechanisms of cooperation.
These findings may shed light on how male and female brains evolved. For example, others have hypothesised that the male’s history of hunting and warfare may have resulted in evolutionary differences in how men co-operate with one another, the researchers wrote.