This is what happens to our brains when men and women work together

Think alike.
Think alike.
Image: Reuters/Molly Riley
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We all cooperate, but not in the same ways. And now, neuroscience shows that at least some of those differences may be based on sex.

A study published today (June 7) in Scientific Reports from researchers at Stanford University showed that different parts of men and women’s brains activated when working together on a simple task,  suggesting that the two groups cooperate differently.

“The location of those differences may say a lot about the underlying cognitive strategies used by men and women,” Joseph Baker, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University and lead author of the paper, told Quartz. “One of the biggest surprises was behavioral outcomes.”

In other words, this research suggests that men and women may use different tactics—like men focusing on multitasking, or women reading others’ behavior—to reach a common goal. Previous studies of gender and cooperation have indicated (pdf) that men were better at getting along with men than women with other women, often based on passive brain scans. This new research appears to support this conclusion, based on new data derived from tracking brain activity while participants actively performed cooperation exercises together.

The researchers monitored over 200 participants’ brain activity while they performed a simple, cooperative task in pairs that involved pushing a button simultaneously without speaking to their partner. In male participants, parts of the brain in the right prefrontal cortex—associated with multitasking—received more oxygen from blood. In female participants, activation happened in the right temporal region—connected with recognizing social body cues. Although it’s difficult to say exactly what role these brain regions played in the discrete task at hand, these scans are the first steps to understanding how different genders approach working together.

Participants’ brains appeared to be working very similarly in single-sex button-pushing pairs, researchers noticed. Pairs of men, and pairs that mixed women and men, were able to push their respective buttons simultaneously slightly more often than pairs of women.

The research is too preliminary to suggest that either sex is better or worse at working together. For one thing, the researchers were using a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor participants’ brains. Although this kind of monitoring is unique because it gives a real-time picture of where oxygenated blood is flowing in the brain, it is superficial and only captures the cortex, which is the outer-most section of the brain.

Additionally, the participants here were performing just one task together; it’s hard to say how this kind of work would scale up into a working relationship. “It’s not that either males or females are better at cooperating or can’t cooperate with each other,” Allan Reiss, a psychiatrist at Stanford University and co-author of the paper, said in a press release. “Rather, there’s just a difference in how they’re cooperating.”

However, this study could be one of the first steps of understanding how to improve group dynamics. “It’s super far off, but it does seem like it may be possible to use this as a method to identify the most effective pairs of people together,” Baker said. He also thinks that it could one day be useful for patients on the autism spectrum to help them work in a group setting.

This isn’t the first paper that has shown that men and women may work together in different ways. A similar paper was published in 2015 by researchers at East China Normal University, but showed different areas of neurological activation in men and women. Baker thinks that these differences in brain patterns could be related to differences in culture. ”It raises the possibility that culture may influence social cognition,” he said.