A new study suggests that people think anger is for dudes and sadness is for ladies โ€” so much so that they sometimes think a sad person is a lady, even if that person's gender isn't apparent.

According to PsychCentral, the study had a pretty strange design: researchers "recorded male and female actors throwing baseballs in a way that conveyed a specific emotion." They used Avatar-style motion capture to transform the throwers into gender-neutral figures, then showed the recordings to college students and asked them to guess the gender and emotion of the throwers just from the way they threw. Result: students were pretty good at spotting angry throws (70% accuracy), but kind of shitty at identifying sad ones (30%). They also overwhelmingly guessed that angry throwers were male, and sad throwers female. Says lead study author Dr. Kerri Johnson,

It's OK โ€” even expected โ€” for men to express anger. But when women have a negative emotion, they're expected to express their displeasure with sadness. Similarly, women are allowed to cry, whereas men face all kinds of stigma if they do so. Here, we found that these stereotypes impact very basic judgments of others as well, such as whether a person is a man or woman.


Obviously the study methodology raises some questions. For instance, how do you throw sadly? Might sad throws simply be interpreted as weak? Might the results be tainted by people's preconceptions about gender and throwing ability? These concerns notwithstanding, Johnson seems confident in the results: "We found that prior beliefs and stereotypes can lead to systematic errors in the perception of body motions, which otherwise tend to be fairly accurate." PsychCentral's Traci Pedersen also notes that the study bears out previous research, such as an experiment showing that people tend to identify crying male babies as angry, and crying female babies as sad.

The baby study addresses something the throwing one doesn't: whether we tend to see female distress as sadness rather than rage, regardless of what a woman (or girl, or baby) is actually feeling. If that's true, it suggests a kind of feedback loop where emotion and gender are concerned: sadness is a girly emotion, anger a manly one โ€” so when a woman is upset, we assume she's sad. This just reinforces the idea that women are supposed to be sad and not angry, something women may internalize. Then women become less likely to express anger, or even to notice that they're feeling it, and the stereotype that girls get sad and boys get mad is strengthened even further. Exposing these stereotypes is the first step to changing them, and allowing both genders the full range of human emotions. But we probably need to tackle female sadness separately from "throwing like a girl."

Anger Perceived As Masculine, Sadness As Feminine [PsychCentral]

Image via Basov Mikhail/Shutterstock.com