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Health, Science, The Mind

Halloween Special: Do women get scared more easily than men?

It’s only girls that get scared by spiders, mice and horror movies right?

Do women really get more easily scared than men? Research suggest they just might...

That’s the stereotype, but is there any truth in it?

Halloween is nearly upon us so we can expect DVD stores to be packed with horror and ‘slasher’ movies. I like a good scary, although rarely get the chance (my ‘other half’ hates them). Many women I know would also turn their nose up at anything in the ‘horror’ section of Blockbuster. So why is it that women don’t like scary movies as much? Perhaps they’re just pretending: statistics show that women actually enjoy horror movies just as much (and sometimes more) than men!

Are women more easily scared?

Recent research shows that women admit to getting more scared than men! A team of researchers from Italy found that women felt much more repulsed by watching gruesome movie scenes than men. And in separate study of 1,000 adults, women had significantly higher rates of being scared by spiders, heights and closed spaces than men. So the evidence is clear: women get scared more easily and need us big strong men to look after them!

But wait, there could be another answer…

Do you get scared by these creepy little critters?

 

Women are more honest!

Is the female body designed to react to frightening things in a different way? Or is it possible that men just don’t admit to getting scared as much? Recent research shows that physiological responses to watching scary movies (blood pressure, heart rate, etc) are just the same in men and women. Men and women’s body’s respond in the same way - men just don’t admit to it! Face it guys, you’re just as freaked out by Freddie Cruger in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ as the woman clinging tightly to your arm.

The perfect scary movie

You watch a horror movie to get scared right? So if you could design the ‘ultimate’ scary movie, what would be in it? If we were to take a scientific approach to this problem, the most common phobias in both men and women are:

  1. Heights
  2. Snakes
  3. Closed Spaces
  4. Spiders
  5. Injuries
  6. Flying

So let’s think of ideas: “people stuck in a box on the top of a cliff with snakes trying to get in…” No, that’s not going to work. How about: “A killer spider and snake attack at the top of a skyscraper”? Sounds pretty naff.

Got it! “Killer snakes unleashed in the tight confines of a airliner whilst at high altitude!” Sounds great! My cheque is in the post!

Wait, I think it’s already been done…

Scientifically, this film should be scary. Sadly, 'Snakes on a Plane' is a terrible film.

References:

S Fischoff, J Antonio, D Lewis, Favorite films and film genres as a function of race, age, and gender, Journal of Media Psychology, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1998

Mats Fredrikson, Peter Annas, HAkan Fischer, Gustav Wik, Gender and age differences in the prevalence of specific fears and phobias, Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 34, Issue 1, January 1996, Pages 33-39

Maurizio Codispoti, Paola Surcinelli, Bruno Baldaro, Watching emotional movies: Affective reactions and gender differences, International Journal of Psychophysiology, Volume 69, Issue 2, August 2008, Pages 90-95

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Halloween Special: Do women get scared more easily than men?

  1. Yes I do agree women and men are equally scared.
    But one thing I noticed in my work with very young children – male children see more easily scared by for example a slightly scary puppet and also tend to hit out at the puppet rather that appealing to an adult for comfort . ( I hasten to add that I do not deliberately scare children but over many years this does acidentally happen when I have misjudged what is exiting and what is scary)
    So it could be that in early years, males are actually more scared than females.
    Has anyone else noticed this ? ( Of course we can’t research this because it would be unethical)

    Posted by Ruthie Behan | October 28, 2010, 10:39 am
    • Hi Ruthie,

      Interesting!

      I’ve had a little look through the literature, and recent research review concluded that “girls overwhelmingly report or express a greater number of fears than boys” and that they report experiencing fear in greater intensity than boys. So it seems that girls – like women – experience more fears and get scared more easily than boys. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that children were asked how scared they were (and so, it is possible that boys don’t own up to getting scared).

      However, another piece of research on young children has observed a difference in how boys and girls express themselves when playing games: “boys expressed more anger in their facial expressions, verbalizations, and behavior than did girls”.

      So perhaps it’s that boys express anger and fright more outwardly than girls? (The girls are better at ‘bottling it up’?)

      Thoughts?

      Stu

      References:

      Eleonora Gullone, The development of normal fear: A century of research, Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 20, Issue 4, June 2000, Pages 429-451,

      Hubbard, 2001 J.A. Hubbard, Emotion expression processes in children’s peer interaction: The role of peer rejection, aggression, and gender, Child Development 72 (2001), pp. 1426–1438.

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | October 28, 2010, 11:37 am
  2. Yes- that is reasonable but the at age group I am thinking of ( 30 months) their ability to “bottle things up” is fairly undeveloped ( as parent of toddlers often observe)
    What stikes me is the reflex ( very fast) action of hitting the scary puppet.
    I have also notice this reflex like hitting behaviour when very young children are given any new toy that is stick like in shape ( such as spades , drums with handles wooden spoons) ( this might be easier to research because you could just give the provoking items to children and note how often the behaviour occured , also if it incresed or decreased with age You could even test for cortisol with saliva swabs to see if more fearfull children tended to react more agressively)
    I fear I am straying into the dangerous territory of Male and Female Brains . Troubled waters but interesting. ( and of course I may be aflicted by observer bias) Thanks for your blog – Ruthie

    Posted by Ruthie Behan | October 28, 2010, 6:46 pm
    • Ruthie – Thanks for your astute thought-provoking questions!

      There are no differences between boys and girls in reactions to fear-inducing stimuli before the age of 9 months. From that time, it appears that girls are more reluctant to approach novel objects or situations and seem to be more fearful (according to parental surveys).

      From an early age, boys prefer solid-object toys (like balls, handles, trucks, etc) whereas girls don’t seem to have a preference – so your observations are backed up by scientific research. This play preference has even been observed in monkeys! It’s to do with the effect of testosterone on the male developing brain. Boys also play more aggressively than girls (probably due to the testosterone again) – perhaps this is why you observe the hitting behaviour?

      But as for gender differences in toddler’s instant (reflex-type) reactions to scary objects or events – I’m afraid I’ve drawn a blank… No-one seems to have researched that exact area (unless any child-development expert knows otherwise?)

      I like the research idea!

      Men and Womens Brains! Yes… I think that is definitely a topic for a future blog: something like “What’s the difference between men and women’s brains?” or “Can women really multi-task”!!
      :)

      References (for the academic types):

      Beverly I. Fagot and Richard Hagan, Aggression in toddlers: Responses to the assertive acts of boys and girls, Sex Roles, Volume 12, Numbers 3-4, 341-351

      Gerianne M Alexander, Melissa Hines, Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus) Evolution & Human Behavior – November 2002 (Vol. 23, Issue 6, Pages 467-479)

      Judith G. Smetana, Karen J. Letourneau, Development of gender constancy and children’s sex-typed free play behavior, Developmental Psychology, Volume 20, Issue 4, July 1984, Pages 691-696

      Mary Klevjord Rothbart, Longitudinal Observation of Infant Temperament, Developmental Psychology, Volume 22, Issue 3, May 1986, Pages 356-365

      Maria A. Gartstein, Mary K. Rothbart, Studying infant temperament via the Revised Infant Behavior Questionnaire, Infant Behavior and Development, Volume 26, Issue 1, February 2003, Pages 64-86, ISSN 0163-6383

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | October 29, 2010, 8:49 am
  3. Having read your article on stress and then this one, I wondered whether you big ‘brave’ men should limit the amount of scary movies you watch for the sake of your health….or do you think it depends on your personality type, indeed, do you think whether you enjoy watching them depends on your personality type? As for Ruthie’s comment, my son as a baby was terrified of his Jack in a box, whereas my daughter loved it!! Conclusive evidence!

    Posted by Julie Langsford (dr ju!) | October 29, 2010, 6:36 am

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Hospital doctor turned lecturer and science communicator, I love trying to answer life's questions - whether it is how our body works or the best way to dunk a biscuit.... Read more...

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