Does nurture really affect gender differences in spatial abilities?
Today’s post is discussing the paper “Nurture Affects Gender Differences in Spatial Abilities” by Moshe Hoffman and Uri Gneezy. This paper is a rebuttal to the most widely known and empirically supported gender difference in cognitive ability known to date, spatial ability. I was excited to find this paper, since my thesis deals with cognitive gender differences–I have a love-hate relationship with my research, since my feminist leanings lead me to deeply want to see evidence for these differences being due to socialization–not innate ability. Of course, these things are deeply and complexly intertwined. First, however, lets get back to the article at hand.
Hoffman and Gneezy hypothesized that matrilineal or patrilineal societal structure contributes to the observed gender differences, by providing resources and education to one sex over another. And this is precisely what they found–
As we can see here, in patrilineal societies, males outperformed females by finishing the spatial puzzle in 42.31s (on average), while females took 57.17s (on average). In comparison, there were no gender differences present in matrilineal societies. Accounting for a decent sized portion of the difference was the factor of education–in the matrilineal societies, men and women had about the same level of education, whereas there was a larger difference in patrilineal societies (males had around 5 more years of education than women).
Now, this might invalidate my whole area of research. . . except for this:
The puzzle they used was a simple 4-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Now, we already know that education has been shown to erase a large portion of gender differences in spatial ability. But research has also shown that the gender differences are especially pronounced as the spatial tasks get more and more difficult. These findings indeed do demonstrate that socialization does indeed greatly impact spatial abilities, but they haven’t been shown to account for the entire phenomenon.
I will discuss the possible reasons for this in a future post, but it seems that as spatial tasks increase in difficulty, females are more likely to use an analytical and top down approach to solving problems than males are. In contrast, males seem to use a bottom-up, more automatic approach to solving these problems–and they seem to be much faster at it because of this. FMRI studies have supported these findings; males seem to have activation in more automatic visual areas while solving spatial problems, while females do not. Of course, not all males and females behave this way cognitively, and there seems to be about a 65/35 split toward each respective cognitive gender bias–so about a third of males think in an non-stereotypically male way, and the same is true for females. The conclusion that I have come to, thus far, is that these “innate” differences are extremely subtle at a young age and are magnified by the influence of society. In the scheme of things, these observed gender differences are extremely small and are over-publicized because the media likes to make mountains out of the molehills of gender difference.
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