Though it sounds like something you’d give some serious feminist side-eye, studies suggest that women really do seem to be the more “sensitive” gender. That is, they tend to taste, smell, hear, see colors, and feel textures more accurately than men—even though, in most cases, researchers aren’t sure exactly why, says Marcia Pelchat, PhD, a sensory scientist who studies taste and smell at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center in Philadelphia.
Some theories: Gender differences in the senses may have a biological basis, Pelchat says, but there may also be a societal and psychological component, as well. “Women are more likely to do the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning—they worry about whether a rag smells like mildew or if food’s gone bad,” she explains. “So they may actually have more experience with odors and flavors, and that may increase their sensitivity or their ability to process these things.”
Check out what the research says about the fascinating ways men and women differ in how we perceive the five senses.
Women may be better suited for tasks that involve choosing paint swatches or color palettes. According to a 2012 City University of New York study, they are better able to distinguish between subtle shades of primary colors (red, green, yellow, and blue) than men. In addition, men are far more likely to have some form of color blindness—a pigment problem that makes it difficult to distinguish between colors. The disorder usually has a genetic component and is rarely found in women. Men do seem to have one advantage when it comes to vision: Another study by the same researchers found that guys are better able to pick up on sudden movements and identify rapidly changing images—a trait that perhaps evolved from their traditional role as hunters.
People with smaller fingers have a finer sense of touch (or tactile acuity), according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, giving women—who tend to be smaller overall—yet another advantage over men. Smaller digits have more closely spaced sensory receptors, so are therefore able to pick up on more varieties of outside stimulation, the authors concluded.
But it’s important to note that fingertip size, not gender, was the sole factor contributing to these findings, according to Massachusetts General Hospital physician Ethan Lerner, MD, “So, a man with fingertips that are smaller than a woman’s will be more sensitive to touch than the woman,” he cautioned in a press release about the study.
Men are five and a half times more likely to lose their hearing than women, according to a 2008 study from Johns Hopkins University. But, because boys and girls show no differences in ability when they’re born, experts speculate that most of these changes are due to lifestyle and environmental factors—like smoking, noise exposure, and cardiovascular risk factors—that affect more men than women. Other research, however, has found that women of all ages have better hearing at frequencies above 2,000 Hz, but that, as they age, they are less able to hear low frequencies (1,000 to 2,000 Hz) than men.
Scientists have long known that women tend to outperform men on tests for identifying scents, but only recently have they found a potential biological explanation. A study published in the November 2014 issue of PLoS ONEfound that post-mortem female brains had, on average, 43% more cells and almost 50% more neurons in their olfactory centers (the part dedicated to smelling and odors) than male brains.
The study’s authors can’t be sure that these extra cells are responsible for greater smelling ability, but they say it’s a good guess. From an evolutionary perspective an enhanced sense of smell may have helped women choose mates for reproductive purposes.
Considering how closely smell and taste are related, it’s not surprising that women also tend to have more sensitive palates than men. In fact, research from Yale University has found that women actually have moretaste buds on their tongues. About 35% of women (and only 15% of men) can call themselves “supertasters,” which means they identify flavors such as bitter, sweet, and sour more strongly than others.
Also of note: Women of childbearing age taste flavors more intensely than younger or older females, and they may also notice increased sensitivity during pregnancy, Pelchat adds.