Men are governed by lines of intellect – women, by curves of emotion. That is the 20th century novelist James Joyce quoted in a study from psychologists who have examined whether “the old stereotype” is true or not – “that men engage in more cognitive activity.”

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Does greater emotional empathy in women affect their level of rational thinking?

This new meta-analysis of psychology research concludes that, when it comes to moral decisions, women are no less cognitive than men in weighing up dilemmas that involve harm, but that women do have stronger gut feelings in the process.

“Women are more likely to have a gut-level negative reaction to causing harm to an individual, while men experience less emotional [response] to doing harm,” says Rebecca Friesdorf, lead author of the study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Friesdorf found, however, that her analysis ran “contrary” to the idea that because women are more emotional, they must, therefore, be less rational – she found that they are not.

Various decisions were studied, including those about murder, torture, lying, abortion and animal research. In response to moral dilemmas such as whether to kill one person for the benefit of numerous more staying alive, the findings suggest that women have a “stronger emotional aversion to causing harm than men” – but that men and women engage in “similar levels of rational thinking about the outcomes of harmful action.”

The authors set out to disentangle recent research suggesting there were systematic gender differences in moral dilemmas about “causing some degree of harm for a greater well-being overall.”

They say the evidence remained “ambiguous” about whether these gender differences were driven by one or other of the following – or whether in fact there can be a combination of the two:

  • Cognitive evaluations of action outcomes (rational thoughts)
  • Affective responses to harmful actions (emotional feelings).

Rather than assume that the two moral inclinations “are at opposite ends of a bipolar continuum” – or that greater leaning towards one necessarily means less towards the other – the authors looked into the factors independently of each other.

In the psychology-speak of the authors’ field of research, deontology is the principle of a decision being dependent on its “consistency with moral norms,” whereas utilitarianism says that the morality of an action “depends on its consequences.”

Previous studies had suggested that “deontological judgments are shaped by affective processes, whereas utilitarian judgments are guided by cognitive processes.”

The analysis used a special type of statistical assessment known as the process dissociation procedure to separate out and quantify the strength of these deontological and utilitarian inclinations within individuals.

The results were that no gender differences in utilitarian reasoning were found in the analysis – men and women engaged in similar levels of rational thinking about the outcomes of harmful actions.

But the findings do suggest that women have a “stronger emotional aversion” to causing harm than men.

Friesdorf sums up by saying the findings are in line with previous research showing that “women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people than men, whereas gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent.”

The findings are the result of a large re-analysis of data from 6,100 participants asked 20 questions about various moral dilemmas. Friesdorf is a social psychology researcher at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, and she worked on the data alongside Paul Conway, PhD, a psychology fellow at the University of Cologne in Germany, and Bertram Gawronski, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

These examples illustrate the type of moral decision analyzed:

  • “If a time machine was available, would it be right to kill Adolf Hitler when he was still a young Austrian artist to prevent World War II and save millions of lives?”
  • “Should a police officer torture an alleged bomber to find hidden explosives that could kill many people at a local café?”

Whether men and women are more or less able to rationalize moral decisions, a brain imaging study in 2012 found that the brain could not empathize and analyze at the same time.