Study Suggests that Men Aren’t Better at Reading Maps Than Women

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There are stereotypes about men, about women, about dogs, about cats. We live in a world that assumes things about the people in it based on some supposed nuggets of truth, and a whole lot of exaggeration. Stereotypes can show us a lot about our own perspective on the people and things around us- how we view our world.

One of these stereotypes is that men are better map readers or navigators, even if they refuse to ask for directions. There has also been a longstanding stereotype that men are better at math, science, and other cognitive abilities. Science has proved this to be incorrect over and over again, as there are very few areas where men and women differ in cognitive abilities.

Science does show that men and women visualize things different. Our spatial perspectives are different, as are the ways we approach spatial tasks. A recent study has sought to get to the bottom of the reasons why men and woman may not see things the same way, or solve spatial problems the same way as the other would.

In the study, participants were divided into groups and tested with two types of spatial reasoning tasks.  The first task involved a mental exercise on whether following a route involved right or left turns.  The second involved a perspective study in which participants needed to determine directionality on a printed overview map.  Different introductions were provided to different participants: some were told that men did better than women when it came to spatial reasoning and others were told that this task involving perspectives was a social task which women were better at.


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Perspective task.  Image: Tarampi, Heydari, & Hegarty, 2016.

Perspective task. Image: Tarampi, Heydari, & Hegarty, 2016.

The study revealed that how we approach spatial problems is influenced by what we are told our abilities are. Women are typically told that they aren’t as good at science or math than the boys, which creates a stereotype threat. Even though women are perfectly capable at these tasks, they may perform worse because they aren’t expected to perform well.

The second theory on the difference between men and women’s spatial problem solving skills was that men are better at solving random problems, while women are better when there is a social aspect to the problem. A man may have no trouble reading a map, but a woman could visualize the same path if she was instructed to give directions to a friend.

The study confirmed the stereotype threat for both men and women but also showed that without a stereotype threat, men and women performed equally well on both abstract and social spatial problems.

The study:

Tarampi, M. R., Heydari, N., & Hegarty, M. (2016). A tale of two types of perspective taking: sex differences in spatial ability. Psychological science, 27(11), 1507-1516.

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