Hedges and Nowell (1995) write that

Sex differences in central tendency, variability, and numbers of high scores on mental tests have been extensively studied. Research has not always seemed to yield consistent results, partly because most studies have not used representative samples of national populations. An analysis of mental test scores from six studies that used national probability samples provided evidence that although average sex differences have been generally small and stable over time, the test scores of males consistently have larger variance. Except in tests of reading comprehension, perceptual speed, and associative memory, males typically outnumber females substantially among high-scoring individuals.

However, they don't really say anything about the reason for this aside from that "Our results shed little light on the origins of sex differences in [...] variability" (p45).

What theories are there of the reasons for this sex difference in variability on mental tests, and how strong is the evidence to support these theories?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Theories are similar to those explaining differences in intelligence between African American and Caucasian American samples, namely that socio-economic factors such as education, health, peer stimulation etc. play a role. (Feminist) theories hold that women are disadvantaged and that lower performance of women in certain areas is caused by this. Male children are less stimulated by their (mostly female) guardians in social and verbal areas and therefore score lower there. Wether you want to believe this is up to you. There is no experimental evidence, only conclusions drawn from observation. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Feb 25, 2015 at 10:19

2 Answers 2


I've heard two theories related to genetics. Mental traits are massively polygenic (many genes with tiny effects). Men (XY) do not have a duplicate X chromosome like women (XX), which means that mutations to an X chromosome that disrupt typical gene expression can affect men more than women, driving variance in mental scores. The second theory is related to the fact that individual men are less likely to pass on their genes than individual women. Counter-intuitively, most of our ancestors are women. Men may have evolved a riskier genetic strategy that produces more high and low cognitive scores in phenotypes. Consider that men also take more risks. This is a behavioral outcome that may have emerged from the same selection pressure.

See also:




Women are more selective in choosing mates than men and compete with one another for mates less than do men; most will be able to reproduce. Men, on the other hand, who deviate from the average in ways that matter will be more likely to reproduce than other men. This is one explanation for the hypothesis. An alternative explanation is that, because men can reproduce much more than can women, the benefits of having a highly divergent but successful offspring outweigh the drawbacks of having a well below average offspring. These hypotheses are discussed and a review of the research into the greater male variability hypothesis (one of many such reviews) is presented in Thöni, Christian, and Stefan Volk. "Converging evidence for greater male variability in time, risk, and social preferences." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118.23 (2021): e2026112118. Also of interest is a mathematical model claiming to support the hypothesis, Theodore P. Hill (2020) Modeling the evolution of differences in variability between sexes, Journal of Interdisciplinary Mathematics, 23:5, 1009-1031.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. Can you please elaborate on how your post relates as an answer to the question? $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2023 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers I presented the proposed evolutionary forces serving as "reasons for this sex difference": "Men ... who deviate from the average in ways that matter will be more likely to reproduce than other men." And, "having a highly divergent but successful offspring outweigh the drawbacks of having a well below average offspring". $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2023 at 1:59

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