Skip to main content

Where are the Gender Differences? Male Priming Boosts Spatial Skills in Women

Abstract

The effects of gender stereotype activation by priming on performance in a spatial task were investigated among a mixed adult sample (including students) of 161 men and women (mean age = 31.90) from Austria (Europe). They were assigned to one of four experimental groups according to gender and stereotype activation condition. After a male or female gender stereotype activating task, participants worked on a test assessing mental rotation (three-dimensional cube test, Gittler 1990). A significant main effect of priming on the performance in the mental rotation task emerged. Cohen’s d showed a pronounced gender difference emerging only in the female priming condition (d = .59), whereas it disappeared in the male priming condition (d = .01).

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

References

  • Baenninger, M., & Newcombe, N. (1989). The role of experience in spatial test performance: a meta-analysis. Sex Roles, 20, 327–344.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1996). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462–476.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Best, D. L. (2001). Gender concepts: convergence in cross-cultural research and methodologies. Cross-cultural research. The Journal of Comparative Social Science, 35, 23–43.

    Google Scholar 

  • Birenbaum, M., Kelley, A. E., & Levi-Keren, M. (1994). Stimulus features and sex differences in mental rotation test performance. Intelligence, 19, 51–64.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bornholt, L. J., Goodnow, J. J., & Cooney, G. H. (1994). Influences of gender stereotypes on adolescents’ perceptions of their own achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 675–692.

    Google Scholar 

  • Costa, P. T., Terracciano, A., & McCrae, R. R. (2001). Gender differences in personality traits across cultures: robust and surprising findings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 322–331.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Deaux, K., & LaFrance, M. (1998). Gender. In D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deaux, K., & Major, B. (1987). Putting gender into context: an interactive model of gender-related behavior. Psychological Review, 94, 369–389.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Désert, M., & Leyens, J.-P. (2006). Social comparison across cultures I: Gender stereotypes in high and low power distance cultures. In S. Guimond (Ed.), Social comparison and social psychology: Understanding cognition, intergroup relations and culture (pp. 303–317). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H., Bargh, J. A., & Van Knippenberg, A. (2000). On the relation between associative strength and automatic behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 531–544.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dijksterhuis, A., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). The perception-behavior expressway: automatic effects of social perception on social behavior. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 1–40). San Diego. CA.: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of trivial pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 865–877.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dittmann, J., & Scheuer, A. (2007). Berufstätigkeit von Müttern bleibt kontrovers [Occupation of mothers remains controversial]. Informationsdienst Soziale Indikatoren, 38, 1–5.

    Google Scholar 

  • Durik, A. M., Hyde, J. S., Marks, A. C., Roy, A. L., Anaya, D., & Schultz, G. (2006). Ethnicity and gender stereotypes of emotion. Sex Roles, 54, 429–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behaviour: A social role interpretation. Hillsdale/NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eagly, A. H., Wood, W., & Diekman, A. B. (2000). Social role theory of sex differences and similarities: a current appraisal. In T. Eckes & H. M. Trautner (Eds.), The developmental social psychology of gender (pp. 123–174). Mahwah, NJ.: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eriksson, K., & Lindholm, T. (2007). Making gender matter: the role of gender-based expectancies and gender identification on women’s and men’s math performance in Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 48, 329–338.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • European Commission (2006). She figures 2006, women and science, statistics and indicators: European Communities.

  • European Commission (2007). Database—social and economic domain: decision-making in the largest publicly quoted companies.

  • Fay, E. (1996). Tests unter der Lupe. Aktuelle Leistungstests-kritisch betrachtet [A closer examination of current performance tests from a critical point of view] (Band 1. Testrezension 3DW (S. 21–27). Heidelberg: Asanger.

    Google Scholar 

  • Feingold, A. (1988). Cognitive gender differences are disappearing. American Psychologist, 43, 95–103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 429–456.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Flaherty, M. (2005). Gender differences in mental rotation ability in three cultures: Ireland, Ecuador and Japan. Psychologia, 48, 31–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Frieze, I. H., Ferligoj, A., Kogovsek, T., Rener, T., Horvat, J., & Sarlija, N. (2003). Gender-role attitudes in university students in the United States, Slovenia and Croatia. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27, 256–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Furnham, A., Fong, G., & Martin, F. (1999). Sex and cross-cultural differences in the estimated multifaceted intelligence quotient score for self, parents and siblings. Personality and Individual Differences, 26, 1025–1034.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Geary, D. C., & DeSoto, M. C. (2001). Sex differences in spatial abilities among adults from the United States and China: implications for evolutionary theory. Evolution and Cognition, 7, 172–177.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gibbons, L. J., Stiles, D. A., & Shkodriani, G. M. (1991). Adolescents’ attitudes toward family and gender roles: an international comparison. Sex Roles, 25, 625–643.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gittler, G. (1990). Dreidimensionaler Würfeltest (3DW) [Three-dimensional cube test]. Beltz: Weinheim, Germany.

    Google Scholar 

  • Guillot, A., Champely, S., Batier, C., Thiriet, P., & Collet, C. (2007). Relationship between spatial abilities, mental rotation and functional anatomy learning. Advances in Health and Sciences Education, 12, 1573–1677.

    Google Scholar 

  • Guimond, S., Branscombe, N. R., Brunot, S., Buunk, A. P., Chatard, A., Desert, M., et al. (2007). Culture, gender, and the self: variations and impact of social comparison processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1118–1134.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Halpern, D. F. (1992). Sex differences in cognitive abilities (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hamilton, C. J. (1995). Beyond sex differences in visuo-spatial processing. The impact of gender trait possession. British Journal of Psychology, 86, 1–20.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Harris, A. C. (1994). Ethnicity as a determinant of sex role identity: a replication study of item selection for the Bem Sex Role Inventory. Sex Roles, 31, 241–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hoffman, C., & Hurst, N. (1990). Gender stereotypes: perception or rationalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 197–208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581–592.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kail, R., Carter, P., & Pellegrino, J. (1979). The locus of sex differences in spatial ability. Perception and Psychophysics, 26, 182–186.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaufman, J. C. (2006). Self-reported differences in creativity by ethnicity and gender. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 1065–1082.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kimura, D. (1992). Sex differences in the brain. Scientific American, 267, 119–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lawton, C. A. (1994). Gender differences in way-finding strategies: relationship to spatial ability and spatial anxiety. Sex Roles, 30, 765–779.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Linn, M. C., & Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterisation of gender differences in spatial abilities: a meta-analysis. Child Development, 56, 1479–1498.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Luehring, J., & Altman, J. D. (2000). Factors contributing to sex differences in the mental rotation task. Psi Chi, 5, 39–35.

    Google Scholar 

  • Masters, M. S. (1998). The gender difference on the mental rotations test is not due to performance factors. Memory and Cognition, 26, 444–448.

    Google Scholar 

  • McGlone, M. S., & Aronson, J. (2006). Stereotype threat, identity salience, and spatial reasoning. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 486–493.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Newcombe, N., & Bandura, M. M. (1983). Effect of age at puberty on spatial ability in girls: a question of mechanism. Developmental Psychology, 19, 215–224.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Olson, J. E., Frieze, I. H., Wall, S., Zdaniuk, B., Ferligoj, A., Kogovsek, T., et al. (2007). Beliefs in equality for women and men as related to economic factors in Central and Eastern Europe and the United States. Sex Roles, 56, 297–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Oosthuizen, S. (1991). Sex-related differences in spatial ability in a group of South African students. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 73, 51–54.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peters, M., Manning, J. T., & Reimers, S. (2007). The effects of sex, sexual orientation, and digit ratio (2D:4D) on mental rotation performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 251–260.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Petrusic, W. M., Varro, L., & Jamieson, D. G. (1978). Mental rotation validation of two spatial ability tests. Psychological Research, 40, 139–148.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rammstedt, B., & Rammsayer, T. H. (2000). Sex differences in self-estimates of different aspects of intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 29, 869–880.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rasanen, L. (1991). Girls and the learning of physical concepts. Finnish Journal of Education, 22, 185–194.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests. Copenhagen: Nielsen & Lydiche.

    Google Scholar 

  • Resnick, S. M. (1993). Sex differences in mental rotations: an effect of time limits. Brain and Cognition, 21, 71–79.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sanders, B., & Soares, M. P. (1986). Sexual maturation and spatial ability in college students. Developmental Psychology, 22, 199–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scali, M., Brownlow, S., & Hicks, J. (2000). Gender differences in spatial task performance as a function of speed or accuracy orientation. Sex Roles, 43, 359–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sharps, M. J., Price, J. L., & Williams, J. K. (1994). Spatial cognition and gender. Instructional and stimulus influence on mental image rotation performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 413–425.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shih, M., Ambady, N., Richeson, J. A., Fujita, K., & Gray, H. M. (2002). Stereotype performance boosts: the impact of self-relevance and the manner of stereotype activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 638–647.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 80–83.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Signorella, M. L., & Jamison, W. (1986). Masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and cognitive performance: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 207–228.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: how stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613–629.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vandenberg, S. G. (1971). Mental rotation test. University of Colorado: Boulder.

    Google Scholar 

  • Voyer, D., Rodgers, M. A., & McCormick, P. A. (2004). Timing conditions and the magnitude of gender differences on the mental rotation task. Memory and Cognition, 23, 72–82.

    Google Scholar 

  • Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: a meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250–270.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weiss, E. M., Kemmler, G., Deisenhammer, E. A., Fleischhacker, W. W., & Delazer, M. (2003). Sex differences in cognitive functions. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 863–875.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wheeler, S. C., Jarvis, W. B. G., & Petty, R. E. (2001). Think unto others: the self-destructive impact of negative stereotypes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 173–180.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wheeler, S. C., & Petty, R. E. (2001). The effects of stereotype activation on behavior: a review of possible mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 797–826.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Williams, J. E., & Best, D. L. (1990). Measuring sex stereotypes: A multinational study. Newbury Park: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Windischberger, C., Lamm, C., Bauer, H., & Moser, E. (2003). Human motor cortex activity during mental rotation. NeuroImage, 20, 225–232.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank Melanie Fiegl, Michaela Kacvincka, Sandra Peyerl, Nicole Pritz and Sandra Raffetseder for their help with the data collection and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tuulia M. Ortner.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ortner, T.M., Sieverding, M. Where are the Gender Differences? Male Priming Boosts Spatial Skills in Women. Sex Roles 59, 274–281 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9448-9

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9448-9

Keywords

  • Gender priming
  • Gender differences
  • Spatial skills
  • Mental rotation
  • Test fairness