New study disputes notion that men are better at spatial thinking than women

August 31, 2011 by Bob Yirka, report

( -- Throughout much of human history, it has been assumed by both men and women that men are somehow better able to solve so-described spatial problems than are women. This apparent discrepancy has been used to explain the differences in the numbers of men versus women receiving doctoral degrees in the math and sciences, at least in the United States. Now however, new research by Moshe Hoffman, a researcher from the University of California and colleagues suggests that conventional thinking might be wrong. He and his team have published a paper on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests that spatial ability comes more as a result of the environment in which a person is raised, rather than from gender.

Spatial problems are those that exist in the three dimensional physical world, rather than as themes or ideas. Figuring out how to fit randomly shaped objects into a single whole, for example, as is needed in building a stone fence perhaps, shows an ability to imagine how things will fit together as the project moves along, rather than using trial and error, demonstrates . are often believed to be a requisite for doing well in math and other sciences, particularly engineering and physics. Thus the debate about inherent gender abilities takes on more meaning in the academic world.

In their study, Hoffman and his team went to India where they found two very similar cultures living very nearly side by side - with one major difference. One was patrilineal (mostly run by males), the other matrilineal (mostly run by females). To test their theory that culture has more to do with spatial ability than gender, they paid 1,279 adult volunteers of both genders from both groups to assemble a wooden puzzle as quickly as they could; a task they believe that requires spatial abilities. They found that men from the patrilineal group performed the task on average 36% faster than women from the same group. With the matrilineal group however, no discernable time difference between the genders was found, indicating, according to the group, that differences in culture lead to differences in ability to solve a spatial problem rather than gender.

Others however are still not convinced; some suggest that assembling a wooden puzzle doesn’t truly demonstrate spatial abilities at all since it’s actually just a two dimensional puzzle. Others add that the differences found in the study could be due to other cultural differences such as the desire to please.

In either case, the research does show that differences in problem solving abilities can occur due to cultural differences and that more research is needed before making any definitive conclusions one way or the other.

Explore further: Gender gap in spatial ability can be reduced through training

More information: Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities, PNAS, Published online before print August 29, 2011, doi:10.1073/pnas.1015182108

Women remain significantly underrepresented in the science, engineering, and technology workforce. Some have argued that spatial ability differences, which represent the most persistent gender differences in the cognitive literature, are partly responsible for this gap. The underlying forces at work shaping the observed spatial ability differences revolve naturally around the relative roles of nature and nurture. Although these forces remain among the most hotly debated in all of the sciences, the evidence for nurture is tenuous, because it is difficult to compare gender differences among biologically similar groups with distinct nurture. In this study, we use a large-scale incentivized experiment with nearly 1,300 participants to show that the gender gap in spatial abilities, measured by time to solve a puzzle, disappears when we move from a patrilineal society to an adjoining matrilineal society. We also show that about one-third of the effect can be explained by differences in education. Given that none of our participants have experience with puzzle solving and that villagers from both societies have the same means of subsistence and shared genetic background, we argue that these results show the role of nurture in the gender gap in cognitive abilities.

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4 / 5 (4) Aug 31, 2011
As a student I participated in a study of spatial relations ability versus gender. The study tested the ability to mentally manipulate three-dimensional shapes - examining patterns of 6 connected squares and deciding whether, after folding them into a cube, the spots on two squares would be adjacent. IIRC 100 trials per test were involved, and scores were numerical as number correct.
The results showed a strong bimodal distribution among males - suggesting the answers were either genuinely from mental geometry (high scores) or from guesswork (expected values from random answers). Among females the same bimodal distribution of scores was seen but was weaker, as the number of participants with high scores was significantly smaller.
The either-or nature of successful scores suggested a genetic basis, and the gender disparity was consistent with a sex-linked recessive trait (similar to some forms of color defect vision).
2.5 / 5 (8) Aug 31, 2011
@ tadchem
My boyhood was occupied with erector sets, wooden blocks, test tubes and train track assemblies, while my sister was preoccupied with Barbie dolls, sewing needles, ballet shoes and toy cooking utensils. Your student study is completely skewed in that it does not address culturally mandated behavior assigned to genders. If you had a group of women who were, say, sculptors or in other strong visual fields like architecture, you may very likely have had a different outcome.
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
It's all a matter of behavioral cognitive therapy to get anyone's spatial thinking up to par. I've never heard this old wives' tale of one brain's spatial aptitude as being better than the other - unless there's a chemical imbalance.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2011
@ Telekinetic
My boyhood was occupied with erector sets, wooden blocks, test tubes and train track assemblies, while my sister was preoccupied with Barbie dolls, sewing needles, ballet shoes and toy cooking utensils.

I'm sure if your sister got toys similar to the ones you got she would have been less than thrilled. At least I know my sister would have been.

Maybe the average interests of a gender, affected by genetics, predicts on average that genders talents?
1.7 / 5 (6) Sep 01, 2011
@ LivaN
Most kids are given "gender appropriate" toys and colors {pink and blue) before they can barely see. I doubt that most kids can separate themselves from parental and peer pressure to gravitate toward "natural" or non-influenced choices. Remember also that parents are prone to social pressures in the choices they offer their kids. Girls grow up with "Cinderella" and boys are read "Knights of the Round Table." Anyway, it occurred to me that women of ancient cultures were basket weavers, a daunting task that requires an enormous spatial sensibility, let alone an aesthetic of balance and beauty. Women working on the loom also would require a lot of spacial awareness. The hardening of gender roles in our culture limit the cognitive development of both genders.
Fani Raj
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2011
I am not sure if it is only the environmental effect and it has nothing to do with gender. My 4 year old niece puts up with me and I see her getting more attracted to beauty products than anything else. I tried to deviate her to toys like puzzles, cars, lego toys but she does not show much interest in them as she does in beauty products like lipstick, nail-polish etc. However, I have seen boy child getting much attracted to toys like cars or guns or balls.
not rated yet Sep 10, 2011
I hope women were not responsible for this study. In the male dominated society, women were down 36%. In the female dominated society, the men were at parity with women. If ceteris paribus women were not worse at spatial reasoning, wouldn't the men in the female dominated society be 36% worse than the females? This does show that society influences an XX human's ability; in a society of eunuchs, they are at parity with the XY humans. When the XYs are in control, the XXs are pathetic.

What would be an interesting follow-up would be to compare the testosterone level of the XX subjugated males versus the non-XX subjugated males. As well, the T levels in the females. My guess is higher female hormone to male hormone ratios does nothing to enhance one's ability to think spatially.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2011
Most kids are given "gender appropriate" toys and colors {pink and blue) before they can barely see. I doubt that most kids can separate themselves from parental and peer pressure to gravitate toward "natural" or non-influenced choices.

I'm pretty sure I remember seeing a science documentary (and subsequently reading about similar research) where they tested this very question of gender bias vs cultural influence. If I recall, the researcher herself experimented with her own children (and other families) where she went to great lengths not to influence her young children's choices (such as visual cues, language, rewards, etc). The outcome was still that girls preferred to play with dolls & houses and boys with trucks & guns.

Sorry I can't link to the specific program as it was some years ago.

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