Gender Difference in Spatial Ability Influenced by Task Context

A new paper published in Psychological Science has found that gender based difference in performance in spatial tasks can be eliminated by the framework the task is presented in. It was found that women performed as well as men in spatial tasks when they were framed as social tasks.

“Our research suggests that we may be underestimating the abilities of women in how measure spatial thinking” said Margaret Tarampi of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Given findings that entry into and retention in STEM disciplines is affected by our measures of spatial ability, we may be disproportionately limiting the accessibility of these fields to women because of the ways that we are measuring spatial abilities”.

Prior studies have indicated that men are better at spatial tasks on average, but Tarampi and her colleagues noticed that there was little investigation into gender differences around spatial perspective taking. Tarampi and her team noted that spatial perspective taking could also be thought of as a test of social ability.

They tested 65 men and 70 women with two timed perspective taking tasks. The first involved an array of objects in a street. Participants were asked to imagine they were at a certain spot facing in a specific direction, and subsequently indicate the direction of another object in the array.
The second consisted of a map of a neighborhood with a marked path. Participants were asked to write whether they would turn left or right at each corner. Both of these tasks had a ‘social’ version, wherein figures of people replaced objects and street corners. They were also framed prior to the task as ‘social’ or ‘spatial’ tasks.  It was found that women did worse on the ‘spatially’ framed tasks, but the gap was eliminated when the tasks were framed as ‘social’. The mere inclusion of human figures was enough to eliminate the gap, while framing a task as social only helped with the map-based test.

Tourists reading a map.  Photo: morebyless, Flickr.

Tourists reading a map. Photo: morebyless, Flickr.

Tarampi said afterwards” these findings encourage researchers to question the nature of how we measure ability. Starting from different theoretical backgrounds can lead to unintentional differences in approaches – in this case, centred on the inclusion or exclusion of social factors, which in turn bias the results.”

The study:

Tarampi, M. R., Heydari, N., & Hegarty, M. (2016). A Tale of Two Types of Perspective Taking Sex Differences in Spatial Ability. Psychological Science, 0956797616667459.

More: Framing spatial tasks as social eliminates gender differences, Eureka Alert

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