Narcissism Might Be Expressed Differently in Men Than Women – An Interview with Dr. Geary

Dr. Geary is a Curator’s Professor at the University of Missouri. This is a prestigious academic rank awarded to outstanding teachers with an established reputation. He has written four books including on human sex differences, the evolution of the brain and implications for sex differences in health and development. These books have been translated into various languages, among others, French and Spanish. In addition to the books, he has to his credit more than 300 published articles that cover a wide range of topics. We have the opportunity of an interview with him.

Dr. Geary, what is the essential difference in the thought process of males and females?

Girls and women also spend more time thinking about the nuances of social relationships.

There are probably more similarities than differences in most contexts, but boys and men are more likely to use spatial representations in many problem solving contexts than are girls and women; girls and women rely more on language-based problem solving.  Girls and women also spend more time thinking about the nuances of social relationships and are often better at subtly managing them than are boys and men.  More boys and men than girls and women like to focus on thinking about how gadgets work.


Why do girls do better at school compared with boys and why is it that more men go on to become technologists, scientists and mathematicians?

In comparison to boys, school environments are better suited to girls’ personality – they are more conscientious and thus pay attention in class, do their homework, etc. – and temperament. Boys are more physically active, less responsive to teachers’ verbal requests, and less engaged in areas that don’t interest them.

David C. Geary
Dr. David C. Geary / Photo: From the Archive of Dr. Geary

There is a large and very consistent sex difference in interest in people vs. things. Girls and women who are interested in science-based coursework and careers tend to focus on areas that involve dealing with living things (e.g., biology, vet medicine) and that help people (e.g., medicine). More boys and men than girls and women with similar abilities are interested in abstractions and how the physical world works, and are relatively less interested in working with people. People (men and women) with these interests are drawn to technology and the physical sciences. Women in these areas have the same interests and personality profile as the men, there are just fewer of these women than men.


Why do men get into more serious accidents compared with women and also more violent situations?

Boys and men are more likely to use aggression to get what they want.

Both of these are related to achieving status and dominance in their peer group.  The sex differences in accidents is related to a sex difference in risk taking, which in turn is often about ’showing off’ to peers as a way to gain advantage.

Boys and men are more likely to use aggression to get what they want.  I discuss the reasons for this in a recent Psychology Today blog piece.


Are women actually better at learning languages?

Yes.  Girls learn their natural language earlier than boys and there are fewer girls than boys with certain types of language disorders (e.g., stuttering) and more girls at the high end and more boys at the low end of variable language abilities (e.g., fluency).  Women also regain language functions more quickly and thoroughly than men following brain injury that disrupts language abilities.


Which of the genders, in general, possesses a higher IQ.

On average they’re about the same. There are, however, more boys and men than girls and women at the high and low ends of the IQ distributions.


Which of the genders, in general, possesses a higher emotional quotient?

Emotional intelligence generally involves social competencies associated with dyadic relationships and interactions.  Girls and women are, on average, better to much better at the underlying competencies (e.g., making inferences about the feelings of other people) than boys and men.


Some studies suggest that more women prefer to date narcissistic men. What is your opinion?

Narcissistic men often socially present themselves as self-confident.

I don’t actually know much about this particular topic.  However, narcissistic men often socially present themselves as self-confident and dominant and this is probably attractive to a lot of women, rather than narcissism per se.

Mans and womans mind
Mans and womans mind


Would men outnumber women in narcissistic tendencies?

Again, not my area.  I suspect that narcissism might be expressed differently in men than women, with men seeking more social influence and power – and thus garnering more attention and study – and women seeking to control a smaller number of core relationships.


What no longer seems to be just a fad, this tendency to take selfies, is it more prevalent among women compared with men?

Women tend to focus on their physical attractiveness in these, especially if they live in an area in which there aren’t enough successful men to go around. In other words, it is a way of getting attention, if you’re looking for a prospective boyfriend.  Interesting, men are more likely to include group photos, as in being part of a sports team or group of friends. This, in my opinion, is related to boys’ and men’s tendency to compete in groups.


Dr. Geary, please tell us about your growing up years and in addition to self motivation who were the ones that inspired you?

I grew up in a working-class family that moved a lot, because my step-father was in the US navy during the Vietnam war and was often transferred from one place to another.  From 1st to 6th grade, I attended 4 different schools in 4 different states.  My younger brother was severely autistic and had other disabilities that created significant financial and other stressors within the family.  In other words, life was a bit chaotic and, as a result, I was not a very good student much of the time. I did relatively better in high school, but didn’t always focus as much as I could have, which I now regret. Despite a chaotic family life, I stayed focused on the future and getting an education.

I received a California Sate scholarship for academically promising students from financially struggling families and attended Santa Clara University.  It was a difficult transition because I had poor study skills and the coursework was demanding, in addition to working 30 hours a week to pay for books and expenses. Anyway, I figured out how to make it work and eventually majored in psychology. After graduating, I was interested in animal learning but the program I wanted to attend was full and so I entered an MS degree program in clinical child/school psychology and found a mentor, Mel Hovell (then at Stanford Medical School), who was teaching one of our classes. He helped me get the research experience I was looking for, which in turn helped me get into graduate school to study neuropsychology and cognitive development.

I discovered behavioral ecology while taking graduate courses in comparative psychology and thought that this was a potentially exciting way to study people.  At that time there was no evolutionary psychology and so much of what I learned after these courses involved reading on the side, while I engaged in standard cognitive research related to children’s early mathematics learning, which I still do.  Once I was tenured, I began to do work in what is now evolutionary psychology. The associated work includes three books. The first was Male, Female, the third edition of which will be published in August, 2020. The other books include Origin of Mind (on brain and cognitive evolution) and Evolution of Vulnerability (on sex-specific vulnerabilities to things like exposure to toxins).


Our readers are mostly the youth from different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

If you’re growing up in difficult circumstances, a future focus is critical.

If you’re growing up in difficult circumstances, a future focus is critical.  Of course, you have to deal with your current circumstances but focusing on what you want your life to be in 5 years and how to reduce the differences between where you are now and where you want to be is important for long-term success.  This typically involves getting some type of education beyond secondary school.  It need not be a college degree, it could involve training in some type of trade. Whatever the goal, it’s going to be hard and will involve a lot of baby steps and setbacks. Each step forward gets you a little closer to a new life and will eventually create opportunities that you will not otherwise have.  Also, look around. There are many teachers, bosses, older individuals who are happy to provide mentorship to hard working and forward-thinking teenagers and young adults.


Photos: Shutterstock, From the Archive of Dr. Geary

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