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Generic masculine: The brain must overcome inconsistencies
With the help of electrodes attached to the head surface of test subjects, the electrical activity of the brain was measured in two experiments during the reading of various sentence combinations. The text passages used were, for example: "The waiters were walking through the station. It was obvious that most of the men were in a good mood." Or, "The waiters were walking through the station. It was obvious that most of the women were in a good mood."
Although the word "waiters" is to be understood as a so-called generic person designation (i.e., persons of any gender are meant), sentence processing is impaired when women (instead of men) are referred to in the second sentence. Such an effect, called "male bias", has been demonstrated several times in behavioral experiments - also at the University of Kassel. Subjects in these experiments accepted a continuation with the word "men" more often (and faster) as an adequate continuation of the first sentence than a continuation with the word "women".
Electroencephalography (EEG) studies conducted at the University of Kassel now provide the first evidence for neural processing conflicts in a feminine (vs. masculine) reference following the generic masculine. "The results of our studies show that the brain must respond with more processing effort when women are referred to in the next sentence after introducing a group of people in generic masculine than men," said Sarah Glim, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of General Psychology and first author of the two neuroscience studies. "The EEG data collected allow us to precisely identify the relevant processing phases. Already at the level of visual perception (study 1) and again during the actual linguistic processing (study 2) of the word 'women', the brain has to overcome inconsistencies."
A behavioral experiment was also conducted to investigate a currently frequently used alternative form, which is realized in spoken language with a glottal stop before the "inside" (e.g., "waiters*innen"). With the glottal stop form, subjects accepted a continuation with the word "women" in the second sentence more often (and faster) than a continuation with the word "men". Whether this so-called "female bias" in the glottal stop form is due to a more difficult neural processing of the word "men" (vs. "women") is unknown so far and will therefore be investigated in a currently applied research project.
"We are not making any recommendations regarding the use of certain forms of language," emphasizes Prof. Dr. Ralf Rummer, head of the Department of General Psychology and co-author of the studies. "Our task is to provide society - which includes every individual, but also politicians or the spelling council - with information on the basis of which scientifically informed decisions can be made. Setting rules for behavior is not part of our job."
(Study 1) Glim, S., Körner, A., Härtl, H., & Rummer, R. (2023). Early ERP indices of gender-biased processing elicited by generic masculine role nouns and the feminine-masculine pair form. Brain and Language, 242, 105290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandl.2023.105290
(Study 2) Glim, S., Körner, A., & Rummer, R. (2023). Generic masculine role nouns interfere with the neural processing of female referents: Evidence from the P600. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/6bkxd
Körner, A., Abraham, B., Rummer, R., & Strack, F. (2022). Gender representations elicited by the gender star form. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 41(5), 553-571. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X221080181
Körner, A., Glim, S., & Rummer, R. (2022). Examining the glottal stop as a marker of gender-inclusive language in German. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/fr74p
Dr. Sarah Glim
Institute of Psychology, Department of General Psychology
Tel.: 0561 - 804 3578