Popular books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, not to mention generations of comedians, have played up the differences between males and females. Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Haifa have found that there are provable biological differences in the way that boys and girls process language in their brains. With a major assumption or two (by me, not the esteemed scientists), the work may also suggest different approaches to writing copy for gender-specific audiences.
For the first time — and in unambiguous findings — researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Haifa show both that areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks.
“Our findings, which suggest that language processing is more sensory in boys and more abstract in girls — could have major implications for teaching children and even provide support for advocates of single sex classrooms,” said Douglas Burman, research associate in Northwestern’s Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. [From Northwestern University – Gender Differences in Language Appear Biological.]
The findings are published in Sex Differences in Neural Processing of Language Among Children (Neuropsychologia) authored by Burman, along with James R. Booth (Northwestern University) and Tali Bitan (University of Haifa).
The researchers tested the subjects, who ranged in age from 9 to 15, with both visual and auditory tasks while scanning their brains with an fMRI machine.
The researchers found that girls still showed significantly greater activation in language areas of the brain than boys. The information in the tasks got through to girls language areas of the brain — areas associated with abstract thinking through language. And their performance accuracy correlated with the degree of activation in some of these language areas.
To their astonishment, however, this was not at all the case for boys. In boys, accurate performance depended — when reading words — on how hard visual areas of the brain worked. In hearing words, boys’ performance depended on how hard auditory areas of the brain worked.
The researchers suggest that in a classroom setting, boys might be given written tests for material they had learned by reading and oral tests for lecture material to better evaluate what they had learned. (Whether one can be considered to have “learned” something if the knowledge depends on the testing method is another issue, I suppose.)
One area of neuromarketing interest that the researchers didn’t evaluate in this study is how these language processing differences persist during the transition to adulthood. They suggest that boys may have some kind of sensory processing bottleneck that prevents auditory or visual information from reaching the language areas of the brain. Some of their speculation might indeed be relevant to advertisers and in particular, copywriters:
If the pattern of females relying on an abstract language network and of males relying on sensory areas of the brain extends into adulthood — a still unresolved question — it could explain why women often provide more context and abstract representation than men.
Ask a woman for directions and you may hear something like: “Turn left on Main Street, go one block past the drug store, and then turn right, where there’s a flower shop on one corner and a cafe across the street.”
Such information-laden directions may be helpful for women because all information is relevant to the abstract concept of where to turn; however, men may require only one cue and be distracted by additional information.
J. Peterman is from Mars, The Catalog Copy Isn’t
This theory would suggest that advertising copy aimed at males should be simple and direct, while female-oriented copy can provide more context. The first brand that popped into my head while pondering simple copy vs. highly contextual and abstract copy was J. Peterman, whose catalog features highly engaging but hardly simple and direct copy. I tracked down the percentage of female vs. male customers for the J. Peterman catalog (which includes items for both men and women, and whose flagship product is a men’s “duster” coat), and wasn’t surprised that females outnumbered males by more than a two to one margin. Obviously, the product selection has something to do with this, but it’s my guess that the lengthy product narratives work better with the firm’s primary gender demographic. Indeed, catalog marketing is highly scientific: the detailed statistics for both products and customer demographics ensure a Darwinian evolution over the years.
A big caution, though: the gender differences in language processing among 9 – 15 year olds are well demonstrated by this research, adult differences and their real-world implicatons are a lot more speculative at this point. And overall statistical differences don’t say much about individuals – I like reading the J. Peterman descriptions as much as the next guy… or gal!