Sex and Psychology - Spatial Abilities

Spatial Abilities

Some studies investigating the spatial abilities of men and women have found no significant differences, though metastudies show a male advantage in mental rotation and assessing horizontality and verticality, and a female advantage in spatial memory.

A proposed hypothesis is that men and women evolved different mental abilities to adapt to their different roles in society. This explanation suggests that men may have evolved greater spatial abilities as a result of certain behaviors, such as navigating during a hunt. Similarly, this hypothesis suggests that women may have evolved to devote more mental resources to remembering locations of food sources in relation to objects and other features in order to gather food.

Results from studies conducted in the physical environment are not conclusive about sex differences, with various studies on the same task showing no differences. For example, there are studies that show no difference in 'wayfinding'. One study found men more likely to report having a good sense of direction and are more confident about finding their way in a new environment, but evidence does not support men having better map reading skills. Women have been found to use landmarks more often when giving directions and when describing routes. Additionally, a study concludes that women are better at recalling where objects are located in a physical environment. Women show greater proficiency and reliance on distinctive landmarks for navigation while males rely on an overall mental map.

Performance in mental rotation and similar spatial tasks is affected by gender expectations. For example, studies show that being told before the test that men typically perform better, or that the task is linked with jobs like aviation engineering typically associated with men versus jobs like fashion design typically associated with women, will negatively affect female performance on spatial rotation and positively influence it when subjects are told the opposite. Experiences such as playing video games also increase a person's mental rotation ability. A study from the University of Toronto showed that differences in ability get reduced after playing video games requiring complex mental rotation. The experiment showed that playing such games creates larger gains in spatial cognition in females than males.

The possibility of testosterone and other androgens as a cause of sex differences in psychology has been a subject of study. Adult women who were exposed to unusually high levels of androgens in the womb due to congenital adrenal hyperplasia score significantly higher on tests of spatial ability. Many studies find positive correlations between testosterone levels in normal males and measures of spatial ability. However, the relationship is complex.

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