A recent study investigating differences in spatial cognition between men and women seeks to answer the age-old question, are men better at reading maps?
For almost 40 years, research has shown that males are better than females at spatial cognition. Higher performance on spatial cognition assessments, such as the mental rotations test (MRT), is associated with better spatial navigation, increased intelligence, and improved motor skills. Historically, males have performed better at mental rotation tasks (MRT), leading researchers to believe that males had superior spatial sense, such as the ability to read maps.
According to a recent study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, that’s not exactly the case. Using advanced eye-tracking technology and a computerized version of the MRT, researchers were able to deduce that males and females have equal spatial cognition skills.
The study was performed at the Lero Esports Science Research Lab at the University of Limerick, Ireland. The researchers recruited 47 men and 53 women, a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, to participate in the study.
The researchers asked the participants to complete 20 trials of the MRT within 15 minutes. The MRT is a standardized spatial cognition task that requires participants to choose the one of four images that match the test image. However, the four images can be a correct rotation of the test image (requiring the participant to rotate the image in their head to make it match the test image), a mirror foil of the test image (this image and the test image will never match), or a structural foil (this image is modified slightly and will never match the test image). In addition to measuring the accuracy and time to complete the MRT, the researchers tracked the participants’ eyes to see if they could determine how much effort the participants exerted while completing the task (measured by changes in pupil size).
What did the researcher find – are men better at reading maps?
The researchers found that there was no difference in MRT performance between males and females. Overall, the participants took a similar amount of time to complete the test, the average time being 8.069 minutes. In general, participants scored higher on the mirror foil trials compared to the structural foil trials. While previous literature indicated that females exerted more effort than males, as measured by pupil size, the study did not find a difference in exerted effort between the sexes.
Why did males do so well in previous research studies? One possibility, explained Dr. Toth, is the length of time. This study increased the length of MRT time from 6-10 minutes to 15 minutes. This additional time could have reduced the stress of the participants, resulting in higher and equal performance for both sexes.
Additionally, the researchers note that motivation could have played a role in previous studies. The stereotype that males are better at spatial cognition could have motivated males—allowing them to achieve a higher score—while demotivating females, resulting in poorer scores. The researchers did not tell the participants about the stereotype prior to the test. Since both sexes had similar scores, it is possible that motivation could play a role in MRT performance. The researchers intend to investigate the effect of motivation on score in future studies.
Written by Shayna Goldenberg
Toth, A. and Campbell, M. (2019). Investigating sex differences, cognitive effort, strategy, and performance on a computerised version of the mental rotations test via eye tracking. Scientific Reports, 9(1).
EurekAlert!. (2020). Research shows the sexes have equal spatial cognition skills. [online] Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-01/uol-rst012420.php [Accessed 31 Jan. 2020].
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