"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Do women really talk more than men?

July 5, 2007
Courtesy University of Arizona
and World Science staff

New re­search chal­lenges the pop­u­lar idea that wom­en talk sig­nif­i­cantly more than men.

“The wide­spread and highly pub­li­cized ster­e­o­type about fe­male talk­a­tive­ness and male ret­i­cence is un­found­ed,” wrote psy­chol­o­gist Mat­thi­as Mehl of The Un­ivers­ity of Ar­i­zo­na and col­leagues in a pa­per on the stu­dies, to ap­pear in the July 6 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

Mehl set out to test a re­cently pub­lished as­ser­tion that wom­en use about 20,000 words dai­ly, while men use only about 7,000. In a six-year se­ries of stud­ies, Mehl’s team re­cord­ed con­versa­t­ions of nearly 400 U.S. and Mex­i­can male and fe­male un­ivers­ity stu­dents.

To catch all this chat­ter, they de­vel­oped an elec­tron­ic­ally-activated re­cord­er (with the for­tu­i­tous ac­ro­nym EAR) that dig­it­al­ly, and un­ob­tru­sive­ly, logged the daily con­versa­t­ions of those wear­ing it. The re­sults: wom­en spoke a daily av­er­age of 16,215 words in their wak­ing hours; men, 15,669. True, the wom­en win, but not by a sta­tis­tic­ally sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin, Mehl said, not­ing al­so that there are “very large in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences.”

“What’s a 500-word dif­fer­ence, com­pared to the 45,000-word dif­fer­ence [found] be­tween the most and the least talk­a­tive per­son­s?” he asked. On the oth­er hand, he con­fessed to a con­cern that the sam­ple of par­ti­ci­pants was­n’t truly ran­dom—they were all col­lege stu­dents. None­the­less, he said the study showed no sup­port for the idea that wom­en have larg­er lex­i­cal bud­gets than men, any more than it did that gen­der dif­fer­ences in daily word use have a ba­sis in ev­o­lu­tion.

The idea that wom­en use nearly three times as many words a day as men has tak­en on “ur­ban leg­end” sta­tus and is the stuff of mar­riage coun­sel­ing ther­a­py, Mehl said. 

The 2006 book that made that as­ser­tion was “The Female Brain” Lou­ann Brizen­dine, but she her­self says she has since dis­a­vowed the claim. She said she in turn drew it from a previous pub­li­cation, but cut it from her book after the first print­ing, af­ter learn­ing it was poorly sup­ported.

With the new study, the stereo­type of the fe­male chatter­box is “now re­le­gated to the cat­e­gory of myth,” Bri­zen­dine said. The next ques­tion for re­search­ers, she added, is: why is the myth so tena­cious? One pos­si­bi­lity, she sug­gested, is that many wo­men like to chat to their hus­bands when the hus­bands come home from work and just want to rest. “So she’s re­count­ing her ex­per­iences at a time when he doesn’t want to listen.”

Men’s and women’s brains are dif­fer­ent, Bri­zen­dine added, but the new stu­dy is evi­dence that “there are more si­mi­la­ri­ties... than there are dif­fer­en­ces.”

* * *

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New research challenges the popular idea that women talk significantly more than men. “The widespread and highly publicized stereotype about female talkativeness and male reticence is unfounded,” wrote psychologist Matthias Mehl of The University of Arizona and colleagues in a paper on the research, to appear in the July 6 issue of the research journal Science. Mehl set out to test a recent book’s assertion that women use about 20,000 words daily, while men use only about 7,000. In a six-year series of studies, Mehl’s team recorded conversations of nearly 400 U.S. and Mexican male and female university students. To catch all this chatter, they developed an electronically-activated recorder (with the fortuitous acronym EAR) that digitally, and unobtrusively, logged the daily conversations of those who wore the device. The results: women spoke a daily average of 16,215 words during their waking hours, versus an average of 15,669 words for men. True, the women win, but not by a statistically significant margin, Mehl said, noting also that there are “very large individual differences.” “What’s a 500-word difference, compared to the 45,000-word difference [found] between the most and the least talkative persons?” he asked. On the other hand, he confessed to a concern that the sample of participants wasn’t truly random—they were all college students. Nonetheless, he said the study showed no support for the idea that women have larger lexical budgets than men, any more than it did that gender differences in daily word use have a basis in evolution. The idea that women use nearly three times as many words a day as men has taken on “urban legend” status and is the stuff of marriage counseling therapy, Mehl said. The 2006 book that made the assertion was “The Female Brain” Louann Brizendine, who couldn’t be immediately reached when contacted by email and through a media representative.