Our minds are exquisitely attuned to the social environment

From an interview with Cordelia Fine by Anna Lena Phillips in American Scientist around 2010.

What first motivated me to write the book was an experience I had as a parent, rather than as an academic. I read a book which claimed that hardwired sex differences mean that boys and girls should be parented and taught differently. I found this really interesting—but when I looked at the actual studies being used as evidence, I was shocked by the extent to which the neuroscientific findings were being misrepresented. So my initial motivation was simply to alert people to the fact that old-fashioned stereotypes are being dressed up in neuroscientific finery, and to remind people not to be so enthralled with brain imaging that they forget the importance of social factors.

But when I started to look more closely at the scientific literature itself, I was surprised to discover just how little really concrete evidence there is for the idea that there’s such a thing as a “male” brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world, and a “female” brain hardwired to understand people. Instead what I found was a great deal of evidence that our minds are exquisitely attuned to the social environment, and surprisingly sensitive to gender stereotypes. The problem then becomes that these very confident popular claims about “male” brains and “female” brains reinforce gender stereotypes in ways that have self-fulfilling effects on the way we think and behave. And so at that point my aim for the book became to explain this much more complex, and actually much more interesting, picture of the state of the science in a way that would be accessible to everyone. I hope it will help to dispel the belief, encouraged by many popular commentators, that science has shown that hardwired sex differences mean that it’s pointless to hope or strive for greater sex equality.

Now to get more people to pay attention.

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