Sex matters: Why guys recognize cars and women recognize birds best

Some of the images used in the object recognition test. Credit: Gauthier Lab

(Medical Xpress)—Women are better than men at recognizing living things and men are better than women at recognizing vehicles.

That is the unanticipated result of an analysis Vanderbilt performed on data from a series of tasks collected in the process of developing a new standard test for expertise in object recognition.

"These results aren't definitive, but they are consistent with the following story," said Gauthier. "Everyone is born with a general ability to recognize objects and the capability to get really good at it. Nearly everyone becomes expert at recognizing faces, because of their importance for social interactions. Most people also develop expertise for recognizing other types of objects due to their jobs, hobbies or interests. Our culture influences which categories we become interested in, which explains the differences between men and women."

The results were published online on Aug. 3 in the Vision Research journal in an article titled, "The Vanderbilt Expertise Test Reveals Domain-General and Domain-Specific Sex Effects in Object Recognition."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

"Our motivation was to assess the role that expertise plays in object recognition with a that includes many different categories, so we weren't looking for this result," said Professor of Psychology Isabel Gauthier. She directs the lab where post-doctoral fellow Rankin McGugin conducted the study.

"This isn't the first time that have been found in perceptual tasks. For example, previous studies have shown that men have an advantage in tasks. In fact, a recent study looking only at car recognition found that men were better than women but attributed this to the male advantage in mental rotation. Our finding that women are better than men at recognizing objects in other categories suggests that this explanation is incorrect."

Discovery of the sex effect in object recognition also casts doubt on several studies that claim an individual's ability to recognize faces is largely independent of his or her ability to recognize objects.

This is an illustration of gender differences in object recognition. Credit: Julie Turner, Vanderbilt University

" abilities are exciting to study because they have been found to have a clear genetic basis," said Gauthier, "and many studies conclude that abilities in face recognition are not predicted by abilities in . But this is usually based on comparing faces to only one object category for men and women."

It took the multi-category analysis to reveal that face recognition abilities are correlated to the ability to recognize different object categories for men and women. For example, men who are better at recognizing vehicles also tend to be better at recognizing faces, while women who are better at recognizing living things tend to be better at recognizing faces.

The researchers modeled their new test after the well-established Cambridge Face Memory Task, which effectively measures a person's ability to recognize faces. After familiarizing themselves with a number of images, participants are shown three images at a time – one from the study group and two that they haven't seen before – and then are asked to pick out the image that they had studied.

While one goal of the new study was to compare object and face recognition skills, another goal was to develop a better way to measure who has exceptional skills in one domain: how to find the experts in the recognition of cars or birds or even mushrooms. To do this, the Vanderbilt researchers reasoned that performance on any category of interest needed to be compared to performance on many other categories, to ensure that the self-proclaimed bird expert is not only better with birds than most people, but also better with birds than with most other categories. So they designed the new test with eight categories of visually similar objects: leaves, owls, butterflies, wading birds, mushrooms, cars, planes and motorcycles.

To evaluate the new test, they administered it to 227 subjects – 75 male and 82 female – with a mean age of 23. When the results of the entire group were analyzed, the researchers found that increasing the number of categories revealed a large sex difference: Women proved significantly better at recognizing living things while men were better at recognizing vehicles. In addition, the researchers administered a face recognition test to about half of the participants, which allowed them to determine the correlation between vehicle recognition and face recognition in and the correlation between recognition of living things and faces in women.

More information: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2012.07.014

Related Stories

People see sexy pictures of women as objects, not people

May 15, 2012

Perfume ads, beer billboards, movie posters: everywhere you look, women's sexualized bodies are on display. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that b ...

Why do some people never forget a face?

Dec 01, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- “Face recognition is an important social skill, but not all of us are equally good at it,” says Beijing Normal University cognitive psychologist Jia Liu. But what accounts for the difference? ...

Recommended for you

Giving emotions to virtual characters

20 hours ago

Researchers at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM) were able to simulate human facial expressions in virtual characters and use them in order to create better environments within a virtual ...

Emotion-tracking software aims for "mood-aware" internet

21 hours ago

Emotions can be powerful for individuals. But they're also powerful tools for content creators, such as advertisers, marketers, and filmmakers. By tracking people's negative or positive feelings toward ads—via ...

The emotional appeal of stand-up comedy

21 hours ago

Comics taking to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe this week should take note: how much of a hit they are with their audiences won't be down to just their jokes. As Dr Tim Miles from the University of Surrey has discovered, ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Rink
5 / 5 (1) Sep 17, 2012
What about the other 70 participants?
Sinister1811
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 18, 2012
What rubbish. As a male, I've always been the opposite when it comes to recognizing vehicle models. In fact, I'm far better at recognizing living things. This study is a bit of an over-generalization and isn't a reflection upon everyone.
sirchick
3 / 5 (4) Sep 18, 2012
227 subjects –

6 billion human beings.... and 227 is sufficient to theorise this.. ??

Thank god stigma level is higher in physics than this. Otherwise we would believe in unicorns.
JGHunter
2.7 / 5 (3) Sep 18, 2012
*7 billion human beings.
*Sigma level.

But anyway, I agree with Sinister. Take me into the English countryside and I can identify a large number of living things, some birds I can identify just by their call. This experiment is a farce and evident of nothing other than a small group of people's personal interests.
Egleton
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 18, 2012
Nonsense. Everyone knows that all humans are equal.
DarkHorse66
3 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2012

Thank god stigma level is higher in physics than this. Otherwise we would believe in unicorns.

Don't you mean 'sigma' level? Or was that a freudian slip? :D
Cheers, DH66
Pattern_chaser
3 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2012
Sinister1811 said "This study is a bit of an over-generalization and isn't a reflection upon everyone."

Yes, just as the article made clear in its introduction: "These results aren't definitive, but they are consistent with the following story," said Gauthier. "Everyone is born with a general ability to recognize objects and the capability to get really good at it. Nearly everyone becomes expert at recognizing faces, because of their importance for social interactions. Most people also develop expertise for recognizing other types of objects due to their jobs, hobbies or interests. Our culture influences which categories we become interested in, which explains the differences between men and women."

I think it's only fair to ask you to read the article before you criticise it.
Husky
5 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2012
it would be only fair if we repeat this test by volunteer indians from the amazone rainforest and have these men and wimen recognize objects in urban environment and pluck some ipod wielding urban men and wimen from the metro and put them in the rainforest, then we would have a double blind study that would be able to see if indeed there is a significant difference in male/female recofnition processing and/or this is culturally developed/stimulated or genetic or mixture of both.
sirchick
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2012
*7 billion human beings.
*Sigma level.

But anyway, I agree with Sinister. Take me into the English countryside and I can identify a large number of living things, some birds I can identify just by their call. This experiment is a farce and evident of nothing other than a small group of people's personal interests.


Sigma **
Typo :P

And 7 billion wow! Thought it was 6 point something..
JGHunter
3 / 5 (2) Sep 20, 2012
What is learnt from such an experiment if all they can conclude is "these results reflect these people" - well duh. I could make conclusions about individuals' persuasions.

sirchick, yeah it reached 7bn around the end of October last year. There was quite a lot in the news about it I'm surprised you hadn't heard anything.