Conventional wisdom—and much research—suggests women tend to be more other-oriented than men. Two very different new studies confirm this vexing gender imbalance—one by looking at brain activity, the other by examining the behavior of new parents.
The first finds the neural reward system of women is triggered by generosity, while that of men is more stimulated by self-centeredness.
The second reports that, according to a survey of dual-earner households, new fathers manage to carve out far more leisure time for themselves than do new mothers.
"Household tasks and child care are still not being shared equally, even among couples who we expected would have more egalitarian views of how to share parenting duties," said Claire Kamp Dush of Ohio State University, lead author of the study that looked at new dads and moms.
The study, in the journal Sex Roles, featured 52 couples from dual-earner households around the Columbus, Ohio, area. Both husband and wife completed "time diaries" for a work day and a non-work day during the third trimester of the woman's pregnancy, and again about three months after the baby's birth.
The researchers found a big difference in how the new moms and dads spent their time on days off from work. "On the weekend ... we see the emergence of gendered patterns and inequality, where women do a lot more housework and child-care while he leisures," said co-author Jill Yavorsky.
Specifically, during periods when mothers were consumed with childcare, fathers reported they were relaxing a full 47 percent of the time. But when fathers were watching the kid, mothers were relaxing only 16 percent of the time. They used the bulk of their "time off" from childcare to do other needed work.
Kamp Dush cautions that this is a small study focusing on a specific demographic. But the other study suggests gender differences in self-indulgence are not restricted to new parents.
"The neural reward system appears to be more sensitive to pro-social rewards in women than men," a team led by Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich writes in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
The researchers conducted two experiments in which carefully matched male and female participants opted to either accept a cash reward for themselves, or share it with another person. One used brain-imaging technology, while another manipulated the transmission of dopamine, the well-known neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.
They found women were more likely to get a dopamine rush when doing something for others, while men are more likely to do so when they are acting in their own self-interest.
This gender difference isn't necessarily "innate or hard-wired," but rather "may be the result of education and/or cultural expectations," the researchers write. "From an early age, women may receive more positive feedback for pro-social behavior than men, which may lead to an internalization of cultural norms."
To put it another way: "These stereotypes might function as self-fulfilling prophecies, and produce the gender differences they claim to describe."
Regardless of whether it is learned or innate, it seems there is a disconnect between what men and women find rewarding. So, new moms, when your husband is watching the game while you do laundry, you can compassionately conclude both of you are seeking a desirable dose of dopamine.
Or you can scream at him to get off his butt and help. Your choice.