You know how women can't read a map or park a car, because their poor ladybrains just can't handle complex spatial tasks? Turns out, that may be partly because everyone's always telling them their poor ladybrains can't handle complex spatial tasks.
According to a new study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, confidence has a significant effect on men's and women's performance on mental rotation tests. Study authors Zachary Estes and Sydney Felker note that "of all cognitive sex differences, the mental rotation of abstract figures in 3-dimensional space is the most robust," but that "purely biological explanations [...] have received little empirical support." To see if the gap might be explained by differences in confidence between the sexes, Estes and Felker gave 70 undergraduates a mental rotation test, but also asked them to rate how sure they were about each answer. Via statistical analysis of the results, they determined that confidence was a much more important predictor of accuracy than gender was — indeed, when they took the effects of confidence into account, the effects of gender nearly disappeared.
In another experiment, Estes and Felker "manipulated participants' confidence" by asking them to perform a very difficult line comparison task, then randomly telling them they'd done well or poorly. Then they gave them the normal mental rotation test. Result: subjects who'd been told they sucked at judging lines did significantly worse, regardless of gender. The study authors write, "Participants scored higher on the MRT after being randomly informed that they were above average on a line judgment task than after being informed that they were below average on the line judgment task. Notably, females in the high confidence group and males in the low confidence group did not differ in accuracy."
The study authors note that mental rotation tests may be especially susceptible to the effects of confidence — since subjects are typically allowed to skip questions on these tests, they're constantly considering whether they're really sure of an answer. "Thus," they write, "it is no coincidence that the MRT exhibits the largest and most robust cognitive sex difference [...] The large magnitude of this sex difference may be a direct consequence of the fact that confidence is particularly efficacious for performance on the MRT." That is, rather than providing clear evidence that ladybrains are bad at moving shapes around, mental rotation tests may simply be exceptionally good at highlighting areas where women are less confident. Estes and Felker add,
Understanding the source(s) of the sex difference ultimately may facilitate the bridging of the gender gap in mental rotation skills. Most directly, boosting females' confidence in their mental rotation abilities appears to improve their actual performance [...]. Potentially effective methods for achieving this outcome include rejecting the negative stereotype that women have poor spatial skills, encouraging women to view spatial skills as learnable, encouraging females to engage in more spatial tasks, and providing positive feedback when they do so.
As the study authors note, theirs is far from the first study to show that confidence affects test performance — relatedly, negative stereotypes have been shown to lower SAT scores. Hopefully, however, it will add to a body of evidence that calls into question the idea of large, evolutionarily-based differences between men's and women's brains. And the next time some jerk tells you women have crappy spatial skills, you'll have scientific proof he's wrong.
Confidence Is Key To Women's Spatial Skills, Study Suggests [ScienceDaily]
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