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Talkative Men

Talkative Men

Contrary to popular belief, men are just as talkative as women, according to recent research.


Transcript

Do women really talk more than men? I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

A recent bestseller claimed that women say about twenty thousand words a day, while men average only seven thousand. At the time, many scientists questioned the statistic, and now, new studies appear to disprove it. In one, University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl analyzed six different experiments with college students. The experiments sampled and logged both men's and women's conversations for several days.

Mehl:

So at that point, we compiled all the data, did a thorough analysis, and then we were surprised that really, there was actually no difference whatsoever.

As for where the original, lopsided statistic came from, Mehl says it appears to have been overgeneralized from just one type of male-female interaction. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.


Making Sense of the Research

This study, or rather, the inspiration for it, shows how misinformation can spread like a virus, especially in the age of the Internet.

The questionable statistic came from a bestseller called The Female Brain by Dr. Louann Brizendine. In its first printing, both the book jacket and the book itself stated that women say 20,000 words per day on average, while men say only 7,000. (The numbers have been withdrawn from later editions). At the time, the statistic was quoted widely, not only in reviews of the book itself, but also in other media. Yet scientists also immediately questioned the statistic, noting that Brizendine did not back up the numbers with a clear scientific source.

In fact, the idea that statistics prove women talk more than men has been circulating for at least fifteen years, with daily word counts for each sex ranging from the low thousands to the tens of thousands. It may be impossible to know where this idea originally came from, but University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman has traced the statistic back to two different religious marriage counseling books from 1993. Ironically, that same year, a review of previous scientific data concluded that most studies either found no difference between male and female word counts, or found that men actually talked a little more than women did.

Still, Mehl's team found the existing data lacking, because they didn't "systematically [record] the natural conversations of large groups of people for extended periods of time." It just so happens that Mehl's team had already been doing that for eight years, in order to study other aspects of human conversation. What's more, they had been doing it using hidden recording devices that people wear throughout the day, and which automatically switch on for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes. In this way, the researchers capture snippets of people's normal conversations from morning to night, rather than sitting people down in front of a microphone and asking them to talk for half an hour. The result, presumably, is a compressed but accurate picture of what people say.

Using these samples, Mehl's team concluded that both men and women speak approximately 16,000 words per day. In fact, the researchers found that men actually talked a little bit more than women, but the difference was small and insignificant. Because they studied only college students, these numbers may not apply to people of different ages and occupations. However, Mehl notes that if women really were hard-wired to talk more than men—especially more than twice as much, as the Female Brain quote implies—this should be just as true of college-age women as it would be of women in nursing homes. So the fact that he found no real gender difference in eight years of conversational data strongly refutes the "20,000 versus 7,000" statistic.

Going back to the origin of that statistic, Mehl says it's probably no coincidence that it has roots in marriage counseling. There is, in fact, scientific research showing that in certain marital conflicts, men and women engage in something called a "demand/withdrawal pattern"—meaning the woman demands to talk about the conflict, and the man withdraws from it. In those specific situations, women indeed talk more than men. So it's possible that some marriage counselors incorrectly applied this to all male-female interactions, and that idea spread until it became mistaken for fact.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why did Mehl and colleagues do this study?
  2. What are some reasons why the incorrect statistic become accepted as fact?
  3. Do you think people would be predisposed to believe that women talk much more than men? Do you think this affected the spread of the incorrect statistic? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think Mehl's team recorded only 30 seconds of conversation every 12.5 minutes? Why not record everything?

You may want to check out the August 3, 2007, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Do women really talk more than men? Insects that explode to foil predators. Energy from vibrations. What happens to our brains when we get thirsty. A skin test to predict behavioral problems.


For Educators

Read University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman's informal detective work on the 20,000 versus 7,000 statistic on his Language Log.


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