Men’s emotions fluctuate just as much as women’s do

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Contrary to widely held gender stereotypes, women are not more emotional than men, researchers say. 

Feelings such as enthusiasm, nervousness or strength are often interpreted differently between the two genders. It’s what being “emotional” means to men vs. women that is part of a new University of Michigan study that dispels these biases.

For instance, a man whose emotions fluctuate during a sporting event is described as “passionate.” But a woman whose emotions change due to any event, even if provoked, is considered “irrational,” says the study’s senior author Adriene Beltz, U-M assistant professor of psychology.

Beltz and colleagues Alexander Weigard, U-M assistant professor of psychiatry, and Amy Loviska, a graduate student at Purdue University, followed 142 men and women over 75 days to learn more about their daily emotions, both positive and negative.

The women were divided into four groups: one naturally cycling and three others using different forms of oral contraceptives.

The researchers detected fluctuations in emotions three different ways, and then compared the sexes.

They found little-to-no differences between the men and the various groups of women, suggesting that men’s emotions fluctuate to the same extent as women’s do (although likely for different reasons). 

“We also didn’t find meaningful differences between the groups of women, making clear that emotional highs and lows are due to many influences – not only hormones,” she said.

The findings have implications beyond everyday people, the researchers say. Women have historically been excluded from research participation in part due to the assumption that ovarian hormone fluctuations lead to variation, especially in emotion, that can’t be experimentally controlled, they say. 


Common beliefs regarding gender differences in emotion

Perceptions of gender differences in emotional responding constitute one of the most robust gender stereotypes there is (Fabes & Martin, 1991; Fischer, 1993; Grossman & Wood, 1993; Hess et al., 2000; Plant, Hyde, Keltner, & Devine, 2000; Timmers, Fischer, & Manstead, 2003). In fact, the belief that women are more emotional than men has been labeled a ‘master stereotype’ (Shields, 2003). Men and women, older and younger individuals, as well as individuals from a range of cultural backgrounds hold the belief that women are more emotional than men (Belk & Snell, 1986; Birnbaum, Nosanchuk, & Croll, 1980; Heesacker et al., 1999; Hess et al., 2000).

While this belief is particularly pronounced for the behavioral expression of emotion (Fabes & Martin, 1991; LaFrance & Banaji, 1992), it is applied across different emotion components, including the intensity of emotional experience (Fischer, 2000; Johnson & Shulman, 1988; Plant et al., 2000; Robinson, Johnson, & Shields, 1998).

With the exception of anger and possibly pride, this belief generalizes across a range of discrete positive and negative emotions such as happiness, fear, disgust, and sadness (Birnbaum et al., 1980; Briton & Hall, 1995; Fabes & Martin, 1991; Grossman & Wood, 1993; Kelly & Hutson-Comeaux, 1999; Shields, 2003). Thus, the belief that women are more emotional than men is strongly held and pervasive across individuals, across emotional response domains, and across different emotions.


Empirical findings regarding gender differences in emotion

Empirical studies of gender differences in emotion have produced far less consistent results than might be expected based on popular convictions. In accordance with popular beliefs, there is some evidence that in the domain of emotional expression, women display more emotion than men (Brody, 1997).

However, reports of emotion measured in other domains are less straightforward. Some studies of self-reported emotional experience indicate that women may indeed be more emotionally responsive than men (Bradley et al., 2001; Fujita et al., 1991; Lucas & Gohm, 2000; Seidlitz & Diener, 1998).

One limitation of these studies is that most have relied upon self-report methods, which leave them vulnerable to the effects of gender stereotypes because they ask individuals to report their experiences retrospectively (Grossman & Wood, 1993; Hess et al., 2000). When retrospective and stereotypical biases are removed from these reports, gender differences in emotional responding tend to disappear (Barrett, Robin, Pietromonaco, & Eyssell, 1998; Robinson et al., 1998) or emerge only relatively late in the emotional response, after offset of emotional stimuli (Gard & Kring, 2007).

Studies using physiological responses to emotional stimuli—which are thought to be less subject to the biases associated with self report—hold out the possibility of clarifying the mixed findings from the self-report literature. Studies of this nature only sometimes support the notion that also women are emotionally more reactive than men in terms of psycho-physiological reactivity (Bradley et al., 2001; Kring & Gordon, 1998; Labouvie-Vief et al., 2003), and there seem to be as many reports that do not indicate that there are sex differences in responding (Katkin & Hoffman, 1976; Kelly, Tyrka, Anderson, Price, & Carpenter, 2008; Vrana & Rollock, 2002).

Another response domain that has attracted interest is brain responses, and in particular, activity in neural regions that are related to emotional responding, such as the amygdala. Although there appear to be gender differences in laterality of amygdala responding as it relates to subsequent memory (Cahill et al., 2001; Cahill, Uncapher, Kilpatrick, Alkire, & Turner, 2004) the literature is unclear as to gender differences in overall responding.

There have been reports of greater amygdala activity in men than women (Hamann, Herman, Nolan, & Wallen, 2004; Schienle, Schafer, Stark, Walter, & Vaitl, 2005) but some meta-analytic data show no gender differences in emotional reactivity in the amygdala (Wager et al., 2003).

Bridging the gap between common conceptions and empirical findings

If gender differences (typically) fail to emerge in studies of emotional reactivity, how are we to explain the widespread consensus that there are gender differences in emotional responding? And how are we to explain the marked gender differences in affective disorders? At least two possible explanations exist.

The first possibility is that men and women do not actually differ in their emotional responding. On this view, apparent gender differences in emotional responding are an illusion created by stereotypes that are so pervasive that they bias participants’ reports of their own and others’ emotional responses. If this were so, studies employing subjective measures of experience should observe gender differences, but studies that use implicit measures of emotion, or objective measures of physiological and neural changes due to emotion, should not show gender differences. This, however, is not what we see.

A second possibility is that emotional responding, as measured in the majority of these studies, is a function of two dissociable processes: emotional reactivity and emotion regulation. If this were the case, gender differences in emotional responding could arise either from differences in emotional reactivity per se, or from differences in how those emotions are regulated, or some interaction between emotional reactivity and emotion regulation. On this account, the inconsistency in the literature is due to variation in the degree to which different experimental paradigms allow for the relative contributions of emotional reactivity and emotion regulation.

Gender differences in emotion regulation

If emotional reactivity refers to the processes that determine the nature and strength of an individual’s unaltered emotional response, emotion regulation refers to processes that individuals use to influence the nature of those emotions and how emotions are experienced and expressed.

Emotion regulation can be deliberate or habitual, conscious or unconscious, and can involve changes in the magnitude, duration, or quality of one or several components of an emotional response. Emotion regulation strategies can target one’s own emotions or those of another individual, at a variety of time points in the emotion generation process (Gross, 2007). Because emotion regulation is an ongoing process, the overall trajectory of an emotional response can be characterized by the effects of regulation as much as the effects of ‘pure’ reactivity.

One particularly interesting candidate for examining gender differences in emotion regulation is cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal, when used to down-regulate one’s negative emotional response, refers to the reframing or recontextualization of a negative stimulus in less emotional terms (Giuliani & Gross, in press). Cognitive reappraisal is an appropriate point of focus because this type of emotion regulation has been systematically studied in experimental contexts that allow for the separation of emotional reactivity and regulation.

Converging evidence from several studies has shown that reappraisal effectively diminishes negative affect as measured by self-reported emotional experience (Gross, 1998), the affectively-modulated startle response (Jackson, Malmstadt, Larson, & Davidson, 2000), and other peripheral physiological measures (Eippert, Viet, Weiskopf, Birbaumer, & Anders, 2007). In addition, individuals who report using reappraisal more frequently in everyday life experience lesser negative affect and fewer depressive symptoms (Gross & John, 2003).

An emerging literature on the neural bases of emotion regulation has confirmed and extended the role of reappraisal as an effective strategy for the down-regulation of negative affect (Ochsner & Gross, 2005). Activity in emotion-responsive brain regions such as the amygdala and insula are effectively down-regulated by reappraisal.

Simultaneously, regions of prefrontal cortex that have been implicated in cognitive control and working memory become more active during reappraisal (Eippert et al., 2007; Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008; Kim & Hamann, 2007; Levesque et al., 2003; Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002; Ochsner et al., 2004; Phan et al., 2005). These studies have led to the increasingly common conceptualization of emotional responding as the result of an interplay between emotion-responsive regions such as the amygdala and insula, and prefrontal cognitive control regions (Urry et al., 2006).

Despite the potential value of distinguishing between emotional reactivity and emotion regulation, most studies of gender differences in emotional responses using experimental stimuli do not address whether individuals are permitted to effortfully influence their emotional responses during the course of the experiment.

Consequently, most reports of gender differences in emotional tasks may be the downstream result of the natural interplay between emotional reactivity and the manipulation of that reactivity using emotion regulation. This conflation of reactivity and regulation makes it difficult to discern the true nature of gender differences in emotional responding.

Because few studies in the literature experimentally separate reactivity from regulation, it is unknown how much previously reported gender differences in emotional responding reflect gender differences in reactivity, regulation, or both. Unfortunately, most studies that are designed to separate reactivity from regulation have used only women (Eippert et al., 2007; Goldin et al., 2008; Harenski & Hamann, 2006; Kim & Hamann, 2007; Ochsner et al., 2002, 2004) or did not compare men and women (Phan et al., 2005; Urry et al., 2006; van Reekum et al., 2007).

To our knowledge, no experimental study has allowed men and women to demonstrate their respective naturalistic reactivity to negative emotional stimuli along with their abilities to use cognitive regulation in order to down-regulate those negative emotional responses. Individual difference studies indicate that men and women report using reappraisal with comparable frequency in everyday life (Gross & John, 2003; Gross, Richards, & John, 2006).

However, these individual difference studies have at least two crucial limitations. First, these studies employ self-report measures which are subject to stereotypic biases. Second, they only measure the frequency with which individuals use these strategies in everyday life, which may not speak to an individual’s ability to use a particular strategy when confronted with the instructions to do so.

reference link : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5937254/


Original Research: Open access.
“Little evidence for sex or ovarian hormone influences on affective variability” by Adriene Beltz et al. Scientific Reports

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