We English speakers read from left to right, a directional bias which has been found to influence some of our perceptions. Might our everyday use of language influence how we see gender? Researchers from the University of Surrey unhesitatingly say "yes." Their new study finds the left hemisphere of the brain, which is specialized for language, processes an ambiguous face as ‘male’ more quickly than the right hemisphere.

“When children learn color words they move from using the right side of the brain to using the left side of the brain,” Sapphira R. Thorne, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Surrey, told Medical Daily in an email. “I became interested in extending this line of research into a more social domain to see if we can find similar results when using social categories (i.e. gender).”

Studies in the field of psychology often become controversial simply because most of us have some experience in the matter at hand and a definite opinion about it, too. For instance, the current study notes that among English-speaking people, androcentrism — a feminist concept suggesting there is a general tendency to see men as the 'default' gender — is socialized through language learning. When we say ‘mankind’ instead of ‘humankind’ or use ‘he’ to refer to an individual of either sex, we are demonstrating this.

Previous research from the University of Surrey takes language-linked androcentrism one step further with evidence that English language speakers tend to place males ahead of females in sentences. Describing romantic couples, people likely name the masculine partner first. “Romeo and Juliet,” anyone? Can you say “Adam and Eve?” This even applies to same sex couples, the previous research asserts, where the person perceived to be more masculine will be named first.

The Personal Is Political

Now some (including this reporter) would argue most people, when referring to a couple, name the person they know better first. So you’d most likely name your sister first, rather than your brother-in-law. You’d also say the name of your college roommate before his same-sex partner, even if the latter clearly prefers the role of ‘husband.’ Familiarity and loyalty trump gender issues for most of us, this reporter believes.

Returning to the current study, the experiment worked like this: 42 English or English-speaking volunteers performed a simple task of face categorization. Asked to focus on a cross in the center of a computer screen, they watched as faces appeared before them on the screen and then, as quickly as possible, they named the face as either male or female (whoops — female or male). And so the participants gazed and categorized faces for 280 total trials, while the researchers, tweaked the computer faces so that they morphed into a more female or more male appearance.

The team verified its hypothesis. An image presented to the left side of the brain was generally and more quickly considered ‘male.’ Thorne noted, “Our study clearly found that people are much more likely to make a quick decision that a face is male when it is shown to the left-hand side of the brain.”

Asked whether the results might be reversed in languages that read from right to left, Thorne commented only “in languages emphasizing males as more dominant” would ambiguous faces likely be seen quickly and readily as male by the left hemisphere of the brain.

“I am hoping to repeat the study in different languages, particularly languages that read from right to left (i.e. Arabic),” she told Medical Daily. “This will provide me with further evidence that the way we use language may influence the split second decisions we make when trying to determine someone’s gender.” Planning farther into the future, she’d also like to design an experiment around understanding how language may influence perceptions of social groups, including race.

Source: Thorne S, Hegarty P, Catmur C. Is the Left Hemisphere Androcentric? Evidence of the Learned Categorical Perception of Gender. Laterality. 2015.