Are Habits Different for Women than Men?

by Charles Duhigg in Brain Science, Habits


Imagine, for a moment, that a friend comes to your desk and asks for advice: they want to change their smoking and exercise habits. What should they do?

Would your habit advice be different if they were a woman than if they were a man?

For the last 30 years, the traditional answer has been no. But as we learn more about how the brain works, we’re learning that the best therapies often differ between genders.

Take, for instance, a study that just came out of Yale. Researchers conducted brain scans of 30 cocaine addicts and 36 people who had the occasional glass of wine or beer. While inside an fMRI, the subjects were shown photos of scenes that, in previous interviews, they had said were very stressful, or photos that researchers knew would trigger cocaine or alcohol cravings.

The initial findings weren’t surprising: as anticipated, the cocaine addicts showed greater brain activity in areas linked to addiction (which makes sense) and motivation (in other words, they were more motivated to use cocaine and alcohol).

What was interesting, however, was how much the reactions different between genders.

For women, exposure to stress-related cues triggered addiction impulses. Seeing a photo of a child in potential danger, for instance, caused female addicts to crave a glass of wine or cocaine. Men, on the other hand, were much more less effected by stress. But when men saw drug related cues – a photo of someone at a bar, or of a needle or line of coke – their addictions were triggered. For women, those images had less power.

One take away from this is that therapies should be different for men and women. Female addicts should be instructed in stress reduction techniques, while men – the findings suggest – may do better in a 12 step program.

Other studies have extended these findings to other, healthier realms. A 1992 paper, for instance, looked at the exercise habits of 1,719 women and men, trying to determine who was most likely to start working out. Among men, the leading indicators of developing an exercise habit was the neighborhood they lived in and whether they had a sense of ‘self-efficacy.’ That makes sense, because we know that when we spend time around other people who are exercising, we exercise as well. Among women, however, the leading indicators were education, and family support. The health of the neighborhood didn’t matter as much.

So why is education more important for women than for men? And why do neighborhoods matter more for men, and families matter more for women?

Sources: Neural Correlates of Stress-Induced and Cue-Induced Drug Craving: Influences of Sex and Cocaine Dependence, Predictors of adoption and maintenance of vigorous physical activity in men and women.

Photo credit:  Yale University

12 Responses to “Are Habits Different for Women than Men?”

  1. elainia says:

    I wonder, among those participants, which gender is better at following directions. After reading this information I remembered hearing about the work being done educating women in Afghanistan. Educated women are far less likely to allow their sons join the Taliban…a son must have permission from his mother first, evidently. I am curious about what it is about information in and of itself does to the process of decision making in women. The education of women is also cited in Freakonomics as the highest factor of influence on their children.

    An interesting topic, indeed.

    • cduhigg says:

      Hey Elainia,

      Thanks for your note – that’s a really good question. I think one of the reasons that educating women has such influence is because it’s such a different avenue of influence. I worked for a while in adult literacy where there was a feeling that training men to read offered relatively little reward. But training women to read had huge impacts, because it was a channel of influence with relatively little competition.

      • shawn says:

        RE: So why is education more important for women than for men? And why do neighborhoods matter more for men, and families matter more for women?

        Look at history. Family has traditionally been everything for women. As long the family was secure, there was little stress for women.

        Keeping the community healthy was the responsibility of men.

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  4. Mary Williams says:

    I am a home care physical therapist and see what addiction does to the brain over a lifetime. I also had the opportunity as a younger therapist to see fetal alcohol syndrome babies, and the one remarkable symptom I observed was lack of choice in their movements and cognitive thinking. Then I thought about the science classes where specimens were soaked in alcohol and how completely dead the specimens were.

    So, here is my hypothesis. – both concerning someone like Whitney Houston and anyone with alcohol or drug addictions. My respect for the brain is enormous, by the way. Without it we are nothing.

    If you soak your brain in cocaine or alcohol or prescription drugs over a long enough period of time, cells in the brain die. When they die they do not come back, and the person will not have choice, because fewer synapses are available.

    These little babies I worked with had rigid muscle tone, and did not experiment with movement and their environment as much as normal children. Adults who have abused drugs or alcohol over a lifetime are also rigid and “stubborn” in their thinking and are not open to new ideas. There are fewer synapses to process life and knowledge and do to see possibilities. Perhaps Whitney Houston had just done too much to her brain, and was unable to choose. We have to change while we can still think and process and choose.

  5. Mary Williams says:

    Correction to last paragraph.
    There are fewer synapses to process life and knowledge and do not see possibilities.
    This was fun to share my knowledge base. Thanks.

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  7. D Tro says:

    It is a fact that the nature of the male is that of irresponsibility, meaning simply that as men we need no one’s help to be as irresponsible as we can be all on our own. The nature of women on the other hand is that of both impulsiveness and indulgence, which are neither negative nor positive – until they become ultra-positive or ultra-negative. Nature is locked at its base, meaning the manner in which one overcomes his/her nature is to bridle-that-sucker every morning before the-feet roll off the bed. How often is this done? Well, how many of us are able to get to work and back home again in the evening having fulfilled our responsibilities as mates, parents, and [other]. Self-control is the master of Nature, until or unless one lacks self-control (e.g., the alcoholic).

    The Law of History and Character is ultimately a predictor of self-control and behavior patterns. Generally, the alcoholic will be, simply, an alcoholic (more times than not you’d win money on that bet), and the overachiever will be just that (again, can win a hard-dollar bet on that person).

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