Are Sex-Related Category-Specific Differences in Semantic Tasks Innate or Influenced by Social Roles? A Viewpoint

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In semantic tasks, sex-related categorical differences, in the form of better processing of fruits and vegetables by women and of artifacts (human-made objects) and animals by men, have been reported both in healthy participants and in brain-damaged patients. Researchers’ interpretation of these sex-related categorical asymmetries has, however, been controversial, being connected with the more general (innatist versus experience-dependent) interpretations that had been given of the mechanisms subsuming the categorical organization of the brain. I begin this review with a brief reminder of the debate between supporters of the innatist and the experience-related accounts of categorical brain organization. Then I summarize results that have documented a preference by women for fruits and vegetables and a preference by men for artifacts and animals, and I discuss the innatist and social role-related interpretations that have been given of these results. I conclude that sex-related categorical effects disappear in generations in which the traditional social roles have almost completely disappeared, and these differences are not seen in young individuals raised in societies that emphasize sex equality.

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