Psychologists report that a gender gap in spatial skills starts in infancy

Infant in the UCLA Baby Lab
Infant in the UCLA Baby Lab
(PhysOrg.com) -- Men tend to perform better than women at tasks that require rotating an object mentally, studies have indicated. Now, developmental psychologists at Pitzer College and UCLA have discovered that this type of spatial skill is present in infancy and can be found in boys as young as 5 months old.

While women tend to be stronger verbally than men, many studies have shown that adult men have an advantage in the ability to imagine complex objects visually and to mentally rotate them. Does this advantage go back to infancy?

"We found the answer is yes," said Scott P. Johnson, a UCLA professor of psychology and an expert in infant perception, brain development, cognition and learning. "Infants as young as 5 months can perform the skill, but only boys — at least in our study."

"We've known for approximately 30 years that men and women can see an object from one perspective and then recognize that object after it has been rotated in space into a new position," said David S. Moore, professor of psychology at Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University, both in Claremont, Calif., and an expert in the development of perception and cognition in infants. "In addition, while we have known that all people can do this, it turns out that men are quite a bit faster at it than women are. Previous studies have shown that this sex difference can be detected in children as young as 4 years of age, but our study is the first to have successfully found a way to assess the situation in young infants.

"Although we did not expect to find any sex differences in babies this young, our results suggest that the 5-month-old boys in our study used mental rotation to complete our task while the 5-month-old girls in our study did not," Moore said.

However, with most psychological characteristics, Johnson and Moore note, there are no differences between groups of men and groups of women.

Mental rotation involves taking a mental representation of a three-dimensional object and imagining it in a different orientation — basically rotating the object in your mind.

Moore and Johnson will report their findings in the Dec. 12 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The psychologists tested 20 boys and 20 girls in the study, each 5 months old.

They used a common method in infant perception research: They had the infants look at something repeatedly until their amount of looking waned to less than half its original level. The researchers showed them a computer-generated image of a 3-D object that resembled an "L," constructed of multicolored cubes. Once the infants were bored with the object, the researchers showed them the same object from a different vantage point, and then the mirror image of the object.

"We're requiring the infants to rotate mentally in three dimensions," Johnson noted.

The 5-month-old boys looked at the mirror image about 1.5 seconds longer than they looked at the more familiar image, a "statistically robust difference" (although girls looked at both images longer than boys did), Moore and Johnson report. The 5-month-old girls looked at the mirror image for slightly less time than they looked at the familiar image.

The boys looked longer at the mirror image, the researchers said, because they recognized that the mirror image was completely new and that the other object was simply the original L-shaped image they had become bored with, shown from a different vantage point — a task that required them to rotate the remembered original object mentally.

"We don't know why men are better than women at this task or why boys are better than girls at this, but we do now know that this difference extends all the way back to 5 months of age," Johnson said. "We have shown that this gender difference is present in a pre-verbal population, a population too young to have learned it from manual experience with objects or from extensive learning processes, although learning certainly could be involved."

"We are interested in this question because the visual-spatial skills of male and female adults, on average, are different, and as developmentalists, we are interested in exploring the origins of these differences," Moore said. "While we believe we have found a phenomenon worthy of additional study, good science entails a circumspect approach to our conclusions; it would not be prudent to draw particularly strong or wide-ranging conclusions from the results of this single study."

Provided by University of California - Los Angeles


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Dec 09, 2008
I think it would help for women and men to have the same type of toys as children. That is to say that boys and girls should get as many toys of as many kinds when they are kids and we should not be so quick to toss a toy in the trash just because it is old. Toys can enhance the imagniation and teach many life leasons through the childs own eyes. I also think its cool that children get to see what the adult world is like both good and bad parts so they can better cope or reject the parts of it they dont agree or do agree with when they get older.

Dec 09, 2008
So this kind of explains why guys tend to "undress" ladies a lot more so than vice versa. It`s not because we`re assholes, its because the ladies aren`t as proficient at it. :P

Dec 09, 2008
" It would not be prudent to draw strong conclusions" - or should that be "not politically correct" !!???

Dec 09, 2008
So this kind of explains why guys tend to "undress" ladies a lot more so than vice versa. It`s not because we`re assholes, its because the ladies aren`t as proficient at it. :P


I'm all for helping them with this deficit :-)

Dec 09, 2008

I think it would help for women and men to have the same type of toys as children. That is to say that boys and girls should get as many toys of as many kinds when they are kids and we should not be so quick to


Friends of mine, who have a daughter and a son, specifically tried this -- a bit of a social experiment, I guess, although I'm not positive what their motives were. They made a point of making both "male-oriented" and "female-oriented" toys available to both children and made a concerted effort not to "lead" the kids in any way. In the end though, the kids played with the stereotypical toys. Granted it's a sample of one, but accordign to my friends their children actively resisted playing with the alternate-gender toys.

On another front, my wife is a preschool teacher, and she can see clear differences between boys and girls at play. For instance, when playing with toy cars, the girls will have the cars having conversations; the boys will have the cars having spectacular crashes.

Dec 09, 2008
Nikola Tesla is a perfect example. He took his spatial skills to the nth level and developed working models of dynamos and etc all within the confines of his mind. He was able to develop, build and test his ideas entirely in his mind.
Fascinating.

Dec 09, 2008
I wonder if there are any ways to improve this ability to mentaly rotate objects that could easily be introduced to the education system.

Dec 09, 2008
Female monkeys and male monkeys tend to play with dolls and cars respectively.

Little boys brains react strongly to motion, and little girls brains react strongly to detail.

This culture of women trying to be men and men trying to be women is a disaster. It inhibits science and it does damage to society.

One day they will say that we all can fly and breath underwater.... because "we are all the same, is just learning"

After men shaving their faces, they should start to inject hormones to see if they can breastfeed too....

Dec 10, 2008
"Nikola Tesla is a perfect example. He took his spatial skills to the nth level and developed working models of dynamos and etc all within the confines of his mind. He was able to develop, build and test his ideas entirely in his mind.
Fascinating."

No... That just means he was smart...

Dec 10, 2008
I wonder if there are any ways to improve this ability to mentaly rotate objects that could easily be introduced to the education system.


Tetris? Rubik's cube?

Dec 10, 2008
With respect to those doing useful, creative and interesting things to help their children, in this particular instance, all children would need is contact with their peers or watching cartoons to "warp" their sense of what's appropriate for them.

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