Face to Face

She's emotional. He's having a bad day.

When participants in an experiment looked at photos of women's and men's faces looking sad, afraid, angry, or disgusted, with a sentence beneath the image purporting to explain the emotion ("buried a family pet" for a sad face, for instance, and "was threatened by an attacker" for a fearful one), they offered starkly different explanations for the emotions: that women in the photos felt sad, angry or afraid because they were "emotional," but the pictured men felt those emotions because they were "having a bad day"—even when the expressions and their explanation was identical.

So report psychologists Lisa Feldman Barrett of Boston College and Eliza Bliss-Moreau, a postdoctoral fellow at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, in a paper that will be published in the journal Emotion. (A version of the study was presented last year at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.) In other words, he's angry because of context: he was cut off by another driver, for instance, or because he was elbowed in an elevator. She's angry because of disposition, personality, temperament—she's emotional. And he's fearful because he's reacting to the situation—he found a rattlesnake in the house, say, or was trapped in a burning building. She's afraid because that's her nature.

The popular press, as well as the scientific literature, is full of claims that women are the more emotional sex. Books argue that women are emotionally complex and expressive, while men are stoic, better able to keep their feelings in check, as the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus credo has it. Lately, this sex difference has been "explained" by women supposedly evolving brains that are wired for more emotionality, as the 2006 book The Female Brain claimed. And as we saw in last year's Democratic primaries, a healthy chunk of the electorate believes that women are too emotional to hold high office. No wonder, as Barrett and Bliss-Moreau write, "women continue to be under-represented in positions of economic and political power that require a level head and a steady hand. Jobs that require rational decision-making and high levels of performance in demanding circumstances would presumably be unsuitable for those who cannot keep their head under pressure."

Yet the empirical evidence for the belief that women are more emotional is skimpy. When people are asked which sex expresses emotions more, the majority choose women. But when the movement of facial muscles is measured by an electromyograph, some studies find no sex difference. That was an early clue that differences in emotional expression might be in the eye of the beholder: when a woman does it, it's considered emotional; when a man makes the exact same expression, it's not.

To see why people continue to believe that women are the more emotional sex, the scientists devised their straightforward experiment. They showed 48 men and women (college students) pictures of faces depicting anger, sadness, fear or disgust for three seconds. Beneath each picture was a sentence describing a plausible reason for that emotion—the rattlesnake or road-rage examples I gave above. The participants then saw the faces without the sentences and pressed either of two keys to indicate whether the person in the picture was "emotional" or "having a bad day."

Both men and women attributed women's emotional expressions more to their emotional nature and men's to the situation—despite being given situational information to explain every face. The discrepancy was greatest for expressions of sadness, followed by fear, then anger, and then disgust, where there was no sex difference in explanations of emotion. "The stereotype of the overly emotional female is grounded in the belief that women express emotion because they are emotional creatures, but men express emotion because the situation warrants it," they conclude. "Regardless of whether women are objectively more emotionally expressive, people attribute their emotional behaviors to a more emotional nature."

A study published last year in Psychological Sciencefound something similar—namely, that women's angry expressions are attributed to their emotional nature ("she is an angry person" and "not in control" of her emotions) whereas men's identical expressions are explained by external circumstances (a job interviewer got him mad). As the new study shows, this belief stems not from what men and women actually do but from the explanations given for their behaviors. What we believe determines what we see.