The Primacy of Gender: Gendered Cognition Underlies the Big Two Dimensions of Social Cognition

The Primacy of Gender: Gendered Cognition Underlies the Big Two Dimensions of Social Cognition

By
Ashley Martin, Michael L. Slepian
Perspectives on Psychological Science. June
2020

It is notable that across distinct, siloed, and disconnected areas of psychology (e.g., developmental, personality, social), there exist two dimensions (the “Big Two”) that capture the ways in which people process, perceive, and navigate their social worlds. Despite their subtle distinctions and nomenclature, each shares the same underlying content; one revolves around independence, goal pursuit, and achievement, and the other revolves around other-focus, social orientation, and desire for connection. Why have these two dimensions emerged across disciplines, domains, and decades? Our answer: gender.

We argue that the characteristics of the Big Two (e.g., agency/competence, communion/warmth) are reflections of psychological notions of masculinity and femininity that render gender the basis of the fundamental lens through which one sees the social world. Thus, although past work has identified the Big Two as a model to understand social categories, we argue that gender itself is the social category that explains the nature of the Big Two. We outline support for this theory and suggest implications of a gendered cognition in which gender not only provides functional utility for cognitive processing but simultaneously enforces gender roles and limits men and women’s opportunities. Recognizing that the Big Two reflect masculinity and femininity does not confine people to act in accordance with their gender but rather allows for novel interventions to reduce gender-based inequities.