Gender differences & aggression

Are men really more aggressive than women? Certainly, that is the prevailing perception – but what does science tell us?

A study conducted 30 years ago at Stanford found that psychological differences between the sexes are generally minimal with the exception of aggression. Since then, those results have been further proven with the added qualifier that women can be equally aggressive, but tend to be less physically dangerous than their male peers.

Statistically, males between the ages of 12 and 28 commit two thirds of violent crime. In the US, the rate of violent crime from females is one in 56 versus one in nine for males. Again, men commit the vast majority of murders in the US – 90 percent.

Even in imagination, men are more physically aggressive than women. Men harbour more homicidal and revenge fantasies and report more aggressive dreams.

Still, studies do show women are just as prone to feelings of anger and hostility as men. Women are more likely to use relational or social aggression (such as rumours, gossip, glaring, eye rolling, silent treatment and put downs) rather than acting out physically toward a competitor.

Some speculation exists about why women use this more subtle form of aggression – it may be the result of societal expectation for women not to show hostility or perhaps it is due to a relative lack of physical strength in comparison to men.

A 2008 study did find that relational aggression is just as common among boys as it is girls during childhood and adolescence.

When it comes to physical violence, the only area where women are equal to men in terms of prevalence is in romantic relationships. We typically hear of instances where men are violent toward their female partners, however analysis out of the university of new Hampshire finds roughly equal violence by women – albeit with far less dangerous consequences.

Although women are just as likely to use physical aggression in romantic relationships as men, far more women are injured by men – in fact 2/3 of injuries in domestic disputes are to women.

While men are more likely to punch or choke during a physical altercation, women are more likely to slap or scratch – obviously leading to less serious results.

Although societal expectations may play a part in the differences in aggression between genders, a 2007 Canadian study does show there is likely a biological basis as well. In this study from the University of Montreal, five percent of toddler boys compared to one percent of girls engaged in regular physical aggression and that gap did not change between the age of 17 and 29 months. If the difference were entirely due to outside influence, one would expect the gap to get larger as the children aged and were exposed to more societal influence.

It is now believed some of the difference could be caused by the effects of testosterone on brain development and function. More research is needed, but it should be noted that males are the more aggressive among almost all mammals. The only exception is the spotted hyena – a species in which the female has more testosterone than the male.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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