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Confidence Mediates the Sex Difference in Mental Rotation Performance

Abstract

On tasks that require the mental rotation of 3-dimensional figures, males typically exhibit higher accuracy than females. Using the most common measure of mental rotation (i.e., the Mental Rotations Test), we investigated whether individual variability in confidence mediates this sex difference in mental rotation performance. In each of four experiments, the sex difference was reliably elicited and eliminated by controlling or manipulating participants’ confidence. Specifically, confidence predicted performance within and between sexes (Experiment 1), rendering confidence irrelevant to the task reliably eliminated the sex difference in performance (Experiments 2 and 3), and manipulating confidence significantly affected performance (Experiment 4). Thus, confidence mediates the sex difference in mental rotation performance and hence the sex difference appears to be a difference of performance rather than ability. Results are discussed in relation to other potential mediators and mechanisms, such as gender roles, sex stereotypes, spatial experience, rotation strategies, working memory, and spatial attention.

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Notes

  1. Cooke-Simpson and Voyer (2007) also computed two additional measures of the relation between confidence and accuracy (i.e., Brier scores and “confidence relative to performance”), but again their analyses were at the level of the individual rather than the individual response. That is, for each participant they calculated the mean confidence and the mean accuracy, collapsed across trials, and then they compared the group means. They did not examine the relation between confidence and accuracy on each trial. Moreover, both of their additional measures required the assumption that confidence ratings on a 1-to-7 scale map directly and evenly onto a probability scale. For instance, those measures assumed that a confidence rating of 1 indicated a probability judgment of 0. This assumption is questionable. Presumably, if a participant believes that there is zero chance that his response is correct, then he would either omit that response or else change it to a different response. The important point for our purposes here is that Cooke-Simpson and Voyer did not examine the relation between confidence and accuracy on a trial-by-trial basis, as we did in Experiment 1.

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Estes, Z., Felker, S. Confidence Mediates the Sex Difference in Mental Rotation Performance. Arch Sex Behav 41, 557–570 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-011-9875-5

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Keywords

  • Confidence
  • Gender roles
  • Mental rotation
  • Sex differences
  • Spatial abilities
  • Stereotype threat and lift