July 5, 2007 — -- New research is about to blow up stereotypes of the strong, silent man and the overly chatty woman who nags him.
According to a study released today, men talk just as much as women — on average 16,000 words in a day.
Using digital voice recorders over an eight-year period, researchers at the University of Arizona studied how many words hundreds of American and Mexican college students spoke over several days. The students carried the voice-activated recorders for almost all of their waking hours, on average about 17 hours a day.
The study found that women spoke 16,215 words a day, while men spoke 15,669. Although women speak slightly more words than men, statistically, the difference is insignificant, according to Matthias R. Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona and the study's lead author.
"Men and women are very different in brain processes because there are different hormones floating around," Mehl said.
Despite those neural differences, according to Mehl, the amount that they communicate is the same.
Mehl was prompted to publish the results of his study after a statistic was widely reported by the media, including this network, in the fall: that men only speak 7,000 words a day, while women speak 20,000.
That figure took on a life of its own after a mention in the first edition of "The Female Brain," a best-selling book by Dr. Louann Brizendine, the director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California at San Francisco.
When Brizendine realized that the figure was based on unreliable data from a secondary source, she asked her publisher to remove it from the book, which is in its 13th printing, she told ABC News.
Despite the removal and the study, she says she hears this complaint often in her clinic, where she also does marriage counseling, from men who say their wives just won't stop talking.
But it's not that women necessarily want to talk more, according to Brizendine.
"[Perhaps] women want to talk when [men] really don't want to listen," she said.
Brizendine, who has read the study, believes it is a good starting point, but not the final word. Mehl and his co-authors have opened up a door that other researchers will study in groups other than college students in the future, she said.
"Behavioral research in humans is all very context-dependent," she said. "These are university students so you have to take it for what it is."
Psychoanalyst and relationship specialist Bethany Marshall also wondered whether studying a different age group would have yielded different results.
"University students — they've just left home, so there's a high priority … placed on talking in order to form new relationships," Marshall said. "If you looked at a group that was at a different developmental phase, would they have a different result?"
Unlike the study's author Mehl, Marshall wasn't surprised by the study's findings.
"I find in marital therapy that men talk as much as women do. Men are equally motivated to be in a relationship and men use language as a tool just like women do," she said. "However, when a woman expresses her feelings to a man, the man will place the priority on fixing the situation rather than just dialoguing about it, which gives the illusion that he doesn't want to talk."
The study's authors didn't just study the number of words spoken, however. They also studied whether men and women spoke more words to members of the same sex than they did to each other. The answer? No.
Mehl did find some communication differences between the genders, however, primarily in the subjects men and women discussed.
According to Mehl, men in the study tended to talk more about technology and sports, while women talked more about their relationships.
This is "consistent with the idea that women are more communal in their relationships," he said.
Mehl emphasized, however, that the number of words individuals actually spoke in a day was highly variable. At the extreme ends of the study, the person who spoke the most — 47,000 words a day — was a man, while the person who spoke the least — 700 words a day — was a woman.
"We wanted to know how many words do humans really use — the sex difference, but also the total number of words," Mehl said. "We now know that's between 700 and 47,000."
As brain-scanning technology improves, specifically in regards to gender studies, Mehl says he believes it's important to complement those advances with studies of how brain activity translates in behavior.
"With what's technologically feasible these days … it is so tempting that what we find in the brain is the real thing. We need to study everyday behavior [to determine] to what extent brain differences matter," Mehl said. "I see this study as a sort of affirmative action for behavioral research in the real world."