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Forget what you think you know about the differences between male and female spacial skills

Forget what you think you know about the differences between male and female spacial skills
[Photo: Natasha Connell/Unsplash]

We were firmly under the impression that men’s spatial abilities are, on average, superior to women’s, thanks to decades of research indicating this, and many news reports.

Not so! A new study in Nature Scientific Reports finds no difference between male and female spatial abilities, joining a number of scholarly articles suggesting that differences may be related to other factors, such as testing methodologies.

[Image: courtesy of Scientific Reports]
Spatial skills—which come in handy when reading a map or packing a suitcase or gaming—are typically assessed by “mental rotation” tests, where a Tetris-like shape is presented, along with a few similar images, and participants must choose which choice is an identical rotated version. The results matter. “Better performance on these tests is strongly associated with higher IQ and better performances in STEM subjects in schools and colleges,” says coauthor Mark Campbell, a psychologist at the Lero E-sports Science Research Lab at the University of Limerick.

In this test, shapes were presented to 100 participants, and participants chose which two images (out of four) were identical rotations. Time was also extended, leading researchers to hypothesize that women may do well with the extra time.

Fun fact: Men and women frequently used differing visual strategies, but landed on the same correct answers. In other words, they gazed at different shapes for differing amounts of time, but gleaned the same results. While this study did not ask participants to explain their strategies, the researchers suggest that future research should.

Previous studies have also shown that when women are confident in their spatial skills, they perform well.

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