Do women talk more than men?

Illustration of people talking

Research could lead to better picture of patients facing mood disorders

July 23, 2014 — It’s a common stereotype that women talk more than men. But a new study suggests that context is the key to whether or not that is actually true. Researchers led by Jukka-Pekka “JP” Onnela, assistant professor of biostatistics at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and Professor David Lazer at Northeastern University, collected data using electronic devices on interactions in two different settings — students collaborating on a project, and employees socializing during their lunch breaks. In the first setting, women talked significantly more than men, except in groups of seven or more people when men talked more. In the second setting, there was little difference in talkativeness between genders; differences emerged only for large groups, and here women talked more than men.

“It is perhaps surprising that context makes such a big difference,” Onnela said. “These findings speak to the importance of objective measurement in the study of human social behavior.” He noted that people can be inaccurate when responding to survey questions, and that they may behave differently when observed by researchers. To ensure accurate measurements, participants in this study wore small digital devices called “sociometers” around their necks, which recorded who they were near and how much they talked.

The study was published July 15, 2014 in Scientific Reports.

In the collaborative setting, 37 female and 42 male master’s students worked to complete a graded assignment in 12 hours. The researchers found that women tended to interact more with each other, especially in long conversations. The second setting, which followed 16 men and 38 women at their workplace during 12 lunch breaks, found little difference between the interaction patterns of men and women. With the exception of large groups, there was no detectable difference in talkativeness between men and women.

The study is part of a larger body of work by Onnela and colleagues to find new ways to quantify social interactions. Last fall, Onnela won a prestigious Director’s New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health to develop a smartphone application that will collect data on different dimensions of the social behavior of mood disorder patients. The software and analytic tools developed during the five-year project will be made freely available to other researchers, Onnela said. The first pilot study will launch at Massachusetts General Hospital in the fall.

According to Onnela, the data from the talkativeness study and other research from his group will provide a snapshot of social behavior in a healthy population that researchers will be able to compare with data from the mood disorder patients to better judge how these individuals are faring.

Read study: Using sociometers to quantify social interaction patterns

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Amy Roeder

illustration: iStockphoto/VLADGRIN