Sex Roles

, Volume 64, Issue 5–6, pp 336–347 | Cite as

Beliefs About Cognitive Gender Differences: Accurate for Direction, Underestimated for Size

  • Diane F. Halpern
  • Carli A. StraightEmail author
  • Clayton L. Stephenson
Original Article


Although stereotype accuracy is a large, and often controversial, area of psychological research, surprisingly little research has examined the beliefs people have about gender differences in cognitive abilities. This study investigates the accuracy of these beliefs in a sample of 106 highly educated U.S. adults. Participants provided estimates of male and female performance for 12 cognitive tasks and games. These estimates were compared with published data on gender differences on the same 12 cognitive tasks and games. Results showed that participants were generally accurate about the direction of gender differences, but underestimated the size of gender differences.


Gender differences Stereotype accuracy Beliefs about gender differences 



We thank Dr. Gabriel Cook, at Claremont McKenna College, for his comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper.

We thank the students in the graduate course on Cognitive Sex Differences at Claremont Graduate University for their assistance with data collection.


  1. Allport, G. W. (1954/2000). The nature of prejudice. Reprinted in C. Stangor (Ed.), Stereotypes and prejudice: Essential readings (pp. 20–48). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  2. American Association of University Women. (1995). How schools shortchange girls: The AAUW report (1992). New York: Marlowe and Company.Google Scholar
  3. Ashmore, R. D., & Del Boca, F. K. (1981). Conceptual approaches to stereotypes and stereotyping. In D. L. Hamilton (Ed.), Cognitive processes in stereotyping and intergroup behavior (pp. 1–35). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  4. Ashton, M. C., & Esses, V. M. (1999). Stereotype accuracy: Estimating the academic performance of ethnic groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 225–236. doi: 10.1177/0146167299025002008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Borenstein, M., Hedges, L. V., Higgins, J. P. T., & Rothstein, H. R. (2009). Introduction to meta-analysis. West Sussex: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brigham, J. C. (1971). Ethnic stereotypes. Psychological Bulletin, 76, 15–38. doi: 10.1037/h0031446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Briton, N. J., & Hall, J. A. (1995). Beliefs about female and male nonverbal communication. Sex Roles, 32, 79–90. doi: 10.1007/BF01544758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cejka, M. A., & Eagly, A. H. (1999). Gender-stereotypic images of occupations correspond to the sex segregation of employment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 413–423. doi: 10.1177/0146167299025004002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chan, D. W. (2007). Gender differences in spatial ability: Relationship to spatial experience among Chinese gifted students in Hong Kong. Roeper Review: A Journal on Gifted Education, 29, 277–282. doi: 10.1080/02783190709554423.Google Scholar
  10. Cole, M., & Cole, S. R. (2001). The development of children (4th ed.). New York: Worth.Google Scholar
  11. College Board SAT. (2005). 2005 College bound seniors: Total group profile reports. Retrieved from
  12. de Vries, R. E. (2004). The use of personality chiasms in stereotype research. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 1281–1305. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2004.tb02007.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Diekman, A. B., Eagly, A. H., & Kulesa, P. (2002). Accuracy and bias in stereotypes about the social and political attitudes of women and men. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 268–282. doi: 10.1006/jesp.2001.1511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Else-Quest, N. M., Hyde, J. S., & Kinn, M. C. (2010). Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 103–127. doi: 10.1037/a0018053.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Fiske, S. T. (1998). Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., pp. 357–411). Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies.Google Scholar
  16. Flaherty, M. (2005). Gender differences in mental rotation ability in three cultures: Ireland, Ecuador, and Japan. Psychologia: An International Journal of Psychology in the Orient, 48, 31–38. doi: 10.2117/psysoc.2005.31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Forrest Cataldi, E., Fahimi, M., & Bradburn, E. M. (2005). 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:04) report on faculty and instructional staff in fall 2003 (NCES 2005–172). U.S. Department of Education. Washington: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from
  18. Fuson, K. C. (1988). Children’s counting and concepts of number. New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  19. Geary, D. C. (2006). Development of mathematical understanding. In D. Kuhn, R. Siegler, D. William, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol 2, cognition, perception, and language (6th ed., pp. 777–810). Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  20. Gurian, M., Henley, P., & Trueman, T. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently!: A guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  21. Hall, J. A., & Carter, J. D. (1999). Gender-stereotype accuracy as an individual difference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 350–359. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.2.350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Halpern, D. F. (2000). Sex differences in cognitive abilities (3rd ed.). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  23. Hedges, L. V., & Nowell, A. (1995). Sex differences in mental test scores, variability, and numbers of high-scoring individuals. Science, 269, 41–45. doi: 10.1126/science.7604277.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Johnson, W., & Bouchard, T. J. (2006). Gender differences in mental abilities: G masks the dimensions on which they lie. Intelligence, 35, 23–59. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2006.03.012.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jussim, L., Cain, T. R., Crawford, J. T., Harber, K., & Cohen, F. (2009). The unbearable accuracy of stereotypes. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (pp. 199–225). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  26. Katz, D., & Braly, K. (1933). Racial stereotypes of one hundred college students. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280–290. doi: 10.1037/h0074049.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Levine, S. C., Huttenlocher, J., Tayler, A., & Langrock, A. (1999). Early sex differences in spatial skill. Developmental Psychology, 35, 940–949. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.35.4.940.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Lipton, J. S., & Spelke, E. S. (2006). Preschool children master the logic of number word meaning. Cognition, 98, B57–B66. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2004.09.013.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Loring-Meier, S., & Halpern, D. F. (1999). Sex differences in visuospatial working memory: Components of cognitive processing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6, 464–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lutchmaya, S., Baron-Cohen, S., & Raggatt, P. (2002). Foetal testosterone and vocabulary size in 18- and 24-month-old infants. Infant Behavior & Development, 24, 418–424. doi: 10.1016/S0163-6383(02)00087-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Madon, S., Jussim, L., Keiper, S., Eccles, J., Smith, A., & Palumbo, P. (1998). The accuracy and power of sex, social class, and ethnic stereotypes: A naturalistic study in person. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 1304–1318. doi: 10.1177/01461672982412005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Martin, M. O., Mullis, I. V. S., Gonzalez, E. J., & Chrostowski, S. J. (2005). TIMSS 2003 international science report. Retrieved from
  33. Masters, M. S., & Sanders, B. (1993). Is the gender difference in mental rotation disappearing? Behavior Genetics, 23, 337–341. doi: 10.1007/BF01067434.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. McCauley, C., & Thangavelu, K. (1991). Individual differences in sex stereotyping of occupations and personality traits. Social Psychology Quarterly, 54, 267–279. doi: 10.2307/786655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McCauley, C., Thangavelu, K., & Rozin, P. (1998). Sex stereotyping of occupations in relation to television representations and census facts. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 9, 197–212. doi: 10.107/s15324834basp0903_3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Moore, D. S., & Johnson, S. P. (2008). Mental rotation in human infants: A sex difference. Psychological Science, 19, 1063–1066. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02200.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. National Geographic Bee. (2006). Past National Geographic Bee winners. Retrieved from
  38. National Scrabble Championship. (2006). 2006 USSO championship. Retrieved from
  39. Nguyen, H.-H. D., & Ryan, A. M. (2008). Does stereotype threat affect test performance of minorities and women? A meta-analysis of experimental evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1314–1334. doi: 10.1037/a0012702.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Nordvik, H., & Amponsah, B. (1998). Gender differences in spatial abilities and spatial activity among university students in an egalitarian educational system. Sex Roles, 38, 1009–1023. doi: 10.1023/A:1018878610405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Operario, D., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). Stereotypes: Content, structure, processes, and context. In R. Brown & S. Gaertner (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Intergroup processes (pp. 22–44). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  42. Perie, M., Grigg, W., & Dion, G. (2005). The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2005 (NCES 2006-453). U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington: U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  43. Rutter, M., Caspi, A., Fergusson, D., Horwood, L. J., Goodman, R., Maughan, B., et al. (2004). Sex differences in developmental reading disability: New findings from 4 epidemiological studies. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291, 2007–2012. doi: 10.1001/jama.291.16.2007.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Sacks, G. (2003). The boy crisis in education: What can be done about it. Mensight Magazine. Retrieved from
  45. Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing in fairness: How American schools cheat girls. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.Google Scholar
  46. Salahu-Din, D., Persky, H., & Miller, J. (2008). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007 (NCES 2008–468). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences. Washington: U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  47. Singleton, C. H. (1987). Biological and social explanations of sex-role stereotyping. In D. J. Hargreaves & A. M. Colley (Eds.), The psychology of sex roles (pp. 3–26). Washington: Hemisphere Publishing.Google Scholar
  48. Snyder, T. D., Dillow, S. A., & Hoffman, C. M. (2009). Digest of educational statistics. Institutes for educational science: National center for education statistics (Table 146). Washington: Author.Google Scholar
  49. Spelke, E. S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? A critical review. The American Psychologist, 60, 950–958. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.950.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. 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. doi: 10.1006/jesp.1998.1373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Stangor, C. (2009). The study of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination within social psychology: A quick history of theory and research. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (pp. 1–12). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  52. Steele, C. (1998). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. In J. L. Eberhardt & S. T. Fiske (Eds.), Confronting racism: The problem and the response (pp. 202–233). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  53. Swim, J. K. (1994). Perceived versus meta-analytic effect sizes: An assessment of the accuracy of gender stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 21–36. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.66.1.21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Taylor, S. E. (1981). A categorization approach to stereotyping. In D. L. Hamilton (Ed.), Cognitive processes in stereotyping and intergroup behavior (pp. 83–114). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  55. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). Trends in educational equity for girls and women (NCES 2000-030). Washington: U.S. Printing Office.Google Scholar
  56. Vandenberg, S. G., & Kuse, A. R. (1978). Mental rotations, a group test of three-dimensional spatial visualization. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 47, 599–604.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250–270. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.250.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 817–835.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wai, J., Cacchio, M., Putallaz, M., & Makel, M. C. (2010). Sex differences in the right tail of cognitive abilities: A 30 year examination. Intelligence, 38, 412–423. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2010.04.006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Willingham, W. W., & Cole, N. S. (1997). Gender and fair assessment. Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  61. Wynn, K. (1990). Children’s understanding of counting. Cognition, 36, 155–193. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(90)90003-3.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Wynn, K. (1992). Children’s acquisition of the number words and the counting system. Cognitive Psychology, 24, 20–251. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(92)90008-P.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diane F. Halpern
    • 1
  • Carli A. Straight
    • 2
    Email author
  • Clayton L. Stephenson
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyClaremont McKenna CollegeClaremontUSA
  2. 2.School of Behavioral & Organizational SciencesClaremont Graduate UniversityClaremontUSA

Personalised recommendations