Berkeley Psychology research challenges common beliefs about gender and sex definitions

December 12, 2023

Two UC Berkeley Department of Psychology researchers recently published a commentary that provided insights into the way we understand and define gender.

The paper was titled "Trans-inclusive gender categories are cognitively natural" and published in Nature Human Behaviour. In it, Berkeley Psychology professors Steven T. Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd examined and debunked the notion that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ can be delineated strictly by arbitrarily selected biological traits such as gamete size, chromosomes, or the capacity for childbirth. They emphasize that lexical categories for people tend to emphasize social role — not biological traits. 

For example, adoptive mothers are still called “mothers”. They draw on evidence from biology, cognitive science and linguistics to demonstrate how categories and their labels are neither rigid nor objective. Rather, labels — including gender identifiers like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ — are fuzzy, flexible and adapt to serve the needs of the people who use them. 

"Embracing trans-inclusive language is both a natural linguistic progression and a practical step forward,” Kidd said. “Gender extends beyond mere physical traits – it encompasses the diverse social roles people play in our society.”

The comment emphasizes that embracing a trans-inclusive approach to gender categorization is a step toward ensuring civil rights for all, aligning language with the pursuit of equality. The research reaffirms the central role of the human brain in shaping our identities, beliefs and categories. It argues that trans-inclusive gender categories honor the intricate realities of the human experience.

“Our analysis aims to not only provide a more complete picture of gender definitions, but also to foster a more inclusive, understanding and progressive society,” Piantadosi said. “It emphasizes the importance of evolving language and societal structures in alignment with scientific understanding and human rights.” 

Through their comment, the researchers hope to shift the lexicon towards more trans-inclusive language and dismantle myths about the objective reality of gendered language.

Read the article in Nature Human Behaviour