kitchen table math, the sequel: men and women and spatial rotation

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

men and women and spatial rotation

Abstract: The largest consistent sex difference in human cognition is found on mental rotation tests, which require participants to compare pictures of three-dimensional objects and decide whether they depict the same object or different objects. Across cultures, males score up to one standard deviation higher than females. We administered two standard rotation tests to 123 participants and found that these higher scores likely do not reflect superiority in the process of mental rotation per se, but rather in other aspects of task performance. Our results show that males decide more accurately when two objects are different, a situation in which women are more likely to claim incorrectly that they are the same, and that individual differences in confidence are responsible for part of the male advantage found on this test, whereas differences in spatial encoding ability are not. These results have implications for evolutionary theories of sex differences in spatial cognition.
Christopher F. Chabris: Selected Publications
Hooven, C.K., Chabris, C.F., Ellison, P.T., Kievit, R.A., & Kosslyn, S.M. (2008). The sex difference on mental rotation tests is not necessarily a difference in mental rotation ability. Submitted for publication. PDF file of manuscript
Years ago, I read an article that said Mozart had written 72 drafts of one composition.*

That struck me as the difference between a genius and a near-genius: the genius can still hear the wrong note after 71 drafts.

I don't understand the difference between spatial encoding ability and deciding that two objects are different. I assume the article will clear that up.

* 72 or thereabouts


lgm said...

The article seems to say that the female lacks confidence in stating something is "Different" and will instead choose the default choice of "Same" when the two objects being compared are really different.

Having done a similar test last year at a science museum (put on by some undergrads from a U nearby), I didn't feel that urge myself. An apple is an apple, and a pear is a pear and I don't need a confidence booster to push the button stating that an apple is different from a pear. The shapes I had were a little less obvious, but confidence wasn't the was time. I was aware I was being timed, and aware that faster was considered better, which meant that attribute checking plus error checking time added up. I'd like to see the study repeated with everyone having unlimited time. It seems to me that if everyone can discriminate E from F, then everyone can do so with the letters rotated - given enough time.

Bonnie said...

My mother was always really good at those aptitude tests that test spatial relations. She was better at it than my father. Yet, she became an artist/teacher, and my father became a physics professor. They went to college in the 50's, so I think societal expectations overruled everything else.

I also score really high on those same tests. I just loved them - mentally unfolding and folding those little pictures of solids. I was one of 3 girls in my HS calculus course (this was the 70's), and was the only person in the class who could do that trick where you mentally rotate the curve to generate a solid. I would go around the class and tell everyone else what the solid looked like. It was a nifty parlor skill.

Linda Seebach said...

The trouble with the article's explanation is that it explains too much. If there were similar gender gaps on lots of different kinds of tasks, then it would be a parsimonious explanation for what the gaps have in common. But this merely poes the same question in a different form: Why does this difference in confidence apply more strongly to spatial rotation tasks than to all the others?

(For the record, I'm terrible at all of these spatial things; which way does the gear rotate, how does this fold up? If that were all the test, I'd be a moron.)