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Cognitive Gender Differences


My work on gender-related differences in cognitive abilities has focused mostly on the ability of people to work with and mentally represent visuo-spatial relations in objects and how gender differences observed on such tasks can provide a way to better understand individual differences. This work not only contributes to basic scientific knowledge but also is relevant to the development of training methods to promote better understanding of concepts relevant to mathematics as well as to encourage women to enroll in programs where those skills are required, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

There are always several questions that are of interest to me relevant to gender differences in cognitive abilities. Here are a few examples.

Is the magnitude of gender differences affected by performance factors?
What makes the Vandenberg and Kuse Mental Rotations Test special?
Does childhood activities preference affect gender differences in spatial abilities?
What does this have to do with real life?

 

Is the magnitude of gender differences affected by performance factors?

Performance factors essentially can be considered as those that affect performance without necessarily being related to cognitive abilities. Whether they actually affect gender differences is still under debate in the literature and my research has been fueling that debate! Gender differences in guessing behavior (Voyer & Saunders, 2004) and gender differences on self reported confidence ratings (Cooke-Simpson & Voyer, 2007) should not be ignored. It appears that men have a more accurate perception of their own performance than women. However, work is in progress to determine whether this conclusion is affected by the underlying difficulty of the stimuli used. In a meta-analysis, I found that time pressures actually affect the magnitude of gender differences (Voyer, 2011).  Recently, I have continued to study the influence of time pressure in map reading, with the help of my student Xing Huang. Thus, contrary to some seemingly premature statements in the literature, we should not ignore performance factors  in future work!

What makes the Vandenberg and Kuse Mental Rotations Test special?

There is accumulating evidence that the Vandenberg and Kuse Mental Rotations Test (MRT) produces some of the largest gender differences in favor of men among all spatial tests. My research is examining possible reasons why. For example, we have hypothesized that the three-dimensional nature of the stimuli used in this test might be critical. This led us to the discovery that gender differences are even larger on items that involve occlusion of parts of the stimuli (Voyer & Hou, 2006). Voyer & Doyle (2010) have found that occlusion also affects the pattern of guessing. My graduate student, Randi Doyle, is also currently conducting research in which she is examining whether using human bodies instead of the standard blocks changes the pattern of results. It looks like embodiment can reduce the magnitude of sex differences in mental rotation, but only under specific circumstances, as shown in our early publications on this topic (Doyle & Voyer, 2013; Doyle, Voyer, & Lesmana, 1996; Voyer & Jansen, 2016). This research question is still open, so that is another area of research where students can get involved.

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Does childhood activities preference affect gender differences in spatial abilities?

In a paper I published with C. Nolan and S. Voyer (Voyer, Nolan, & Voyer, 2000), I found that gender differences are only significant for those who played with non-spatial toys as children. I am currently pursuing a way to produce a more precise estimate of childhood toy preference. So far, this work suggests that it might be possible to create a questionnaire that includes scales measuring the spatial/nonspatial and masculine/feminine dimensions separately (Cherney & Voyer, 2010). This research constitutes the first step in the process of identifying a small set of activities that are clearly distinct in terms of their spatial nature and gender-typing. My graduate student, Randi Doyle, demonstrated the usefulness of this questionnaire to predict spatial performance (Doyle, Voyer, & Cherney, 2012). The results turned out quite nicely! I plan to keep using this questionnaire for a while

What does this have to do with real life?

Somehow, many people find it difficult to see how a paper-and-pencil test can predict real life spatial performance. This was the issue that prompted the project by Kashka Iwanowska, one of my honours students. She conducted a study in which she asked people about their everyday navigation abilities and she measured their skills at reading topographic maps. She found that these standard paper-and-pencil tests did a good job predicting these real-life skills (Iwanowska & Voyer, 2013). I am now using the topographic map test in further research as it proved very useful in examining how people deal with the need to transform 2D stimuli into 3D representations in standard mental rotation tasks. For example, I have planned research examining how 2D to 3D representation might relate to mathematics performance in tests and in school.

 

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