"I was surprised by the results," said Matthias Mehl, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, Tucson and lead author of the study. "We all approached it with the idea that all women talk more than men."
While the study deals only with how much men and women talk, Mehl also found some robust gender-specific differences he plans to publish later. "Men talk about technology, sports and money. They use more numbers," said Mehl. "Women talk about fashion, but also about relationships."
Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of the book Far from the Madding Gerund and other dispatches from Language Log, said this verbal gender equality "may come as a shock to those who have accepted the apparently fabricated numbers, widely publicized over the past year, that claim to show that women talk about three times as much as men do."
Language Log, which is at the heart of Liberman's linguistic exploration, is an online magazine written by linguists, but read by thousands every day. Liberman, who maintains the site, wrote a posting in August where he recounted his struggles to unearth the origin of neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine's claim that "a woman uses about 20,000 words a day while a man uses about 7,000."
Brizendine, director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California-San Francisco, originally cited those numbers in her book, The Female Brain, published last year.
"The first edition is a collector's item," Brizendine said in a telephone interview. "It's now in its thirteenth printing. I made them take that out because it was based on different pieces of data I had gotten from a secondary source."
Of today's study, Brizendine said, "I'm really impressed with the new technology they have." But she wondered if the chatter of college students was really representative of, say, grown-ups with jobs.
Two things make a difference in scientific studies: gender and age," said Brizendine.
Mehl and four co-authors admit that their homogenous sample of university students may have affected their outcome. But they write that "to the extent that sex differences in daily word use are assumed to be biologically based, evolved adaptations, they should be detectable among university students as much as in more diverse samples."
Participants in the study carried an electronically activated recorder, or EAR, for about 17 hours a day. "It's a pocket piece or PDA," said Mehl. "We wanted it to be as small as possible." The device records for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes, but participants were led to believe the recordings were made at random.
The data came from summing recordings taken from six samples over the last eight years. Five groups were from the United States and one was from Mexico. "Mexicans have more in-person interactions and Americans talk more on the phone," said Mehl.
The duration of the studies varied from 2 to 10 days and the age of participants ranged from 18-29. A total of 210 women and 186 men were included. The students, many recruited during introductory psychology classes, received a combination of class credit and, that great college motivator, money.
Undergraduates working in Mehl's laboratory manually transcribed the thousands upon thousands of words from the recordings. "It's incredibly labor intensive," said Mehl.
The transcripts were then fed into text analysis software, which counted the words and extrapolated how many would have been used per day.
Mehl hopes shattering the stereotype of female talkativeness will be liberating. "The best application is in couple counseling," said Mehl. "Women are released from being chatty and men are released from being withdrawn."
Staff writer Erika Gebel can be reached at 215-854-2999 or email@example.com