10/18/2016 04:03 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2016

In A Twist To Years Of Research, Women's Spatial Skills May Actually Be Fine

We might just be asking the wrong questions.
Anthony Harvie via Getty Images

There’s an enduring stereotype that women tend to be worse than men when it comes to spatial reasoning. Mentally rotating an object, coming up with strategies to maneuver a big piece of furniture through small corridors, giving directions through a city, navigating, even reading a map ― basically anything that requires visualizing and manipulating 3D objects is thought, by some, not to be women’s strong suit.

Research stretching back decades supports this view. And since spatial abilities are important in the STEM fields ― that’s science, technology, engineering and math ― this supposed deficiency is sometimes cited as one of the reasons women are underrepresented in those industries.

But there remain many holes in this popular narrative. Are women born different or brought up differently? Would it be possible to close the gap with training? Does the gap even really exist, or does it depend on the particular tests used to measure spatial cognition?

New findings published in Psychological Science in September are the latest to add a twist. The researchers found that women performed better on spatial reasoning tests when certain superficial aspects of the tests were changed.

In other words, women and men could very well be equals when it comes to this cognitive skill ― but we’ve been testing it in a way that may put women at a disadvantage, says researcher Margaret Tarampi of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Tarampi and her colleagues asked 135 college students to take a test involving spatial perspectives. The tests asked each student to visualize various scenarios and think about the relative locations of different objects from a perspective other than their own.

Some participants got a traditional version of the test, with instructions that framed it as a spatial task. The instructions explicitly noted that men usually outperform women on this type of test ― and indeed, that’s what ended up happening here.

But then the researchers made some tweaks to the test. In some cases, they rewrote a question so it was about a person rather than an object. In other cases, they noted in the instructions that this was a type of social intelligence test that women tend to do better at than men.

And on these versions, the researchers found, the gender gap vanished. Women did just as well on the revised tests as men. Men’s performance, moreover, remained the same no matter which version of the test they received.

It’s important to note that the revised versions of the test still assessed the same underlying principles as the original version. Only surface-level changes had been made ― along with the new instructions noting that this was a test that favored women over men ― but the result was that women performed much better than before.

“Our research suggests that we may be underestimating the abilities of women in how we measure spatial thinking,” Tarampi said in a statement. “Given findings that entry into and retention in STEM disciplines is affected by our measures of spatial ability, we may be disproportionately limiting the accessibility of these fields to women because of the ways that we are measuring spatial abilities.”

It’s possible that men and women tend to use different mental processes to solve spatial problems. Reframing the test questions to include a social element may have allowed women in this study to solve the problems in their own way. In fact, the social version of the perspective-taking test might be even more ecologically valid. In real life, it’s much more common that we have to assume the perspective of another person than an object. “Some would argue that humans are made to be social beings and that we are built to process socially relevant information,” Tarampi told The Huffington Post.

The idea of perspective-taking stems from a well-known experiment in the 1940s known as the three-mountain task, in which children would view a physical model of three mountains and judge how the scene would appear to a doll positioned at a different location. Children younger than 4 or 5 are typically unable to take the doll’s perspective, but older children are able to imagine how the scene would appear to a person observing from another angle.

Although the three-mountain task had both a spatial and a social aspect, at some point the follow-up research split, with one branch focusing on its implications for empathy and theory of mind, and another branch focusing on spatial measurement, Tarampi said.

Another factor that can obscure people’s true abilities in tests is the so-called stereotype threat. Tarampi’s findings echo numerous previous studies showing that people’s performance on tests can be influenced by the stereotypes they are primed with.

When women are led to believe they are better than men at mental rotation, or when they are asked to imagine themselves as stereotypical men for just a few minutes, they subsequently score as high as men do in mental rotation tests. On math tests, even just testing under a fake male name can boost a woman’s performance. 

Culture and gender roles could have an effect as well. Examining two tribes in Northeast India, researchers have found that women in the matrilineal tribe did just as well as men on a spatial task, while the women in the patrilineal tribe lagged behind the men.

So if you’re a woman, and you ever find yourself doubting your own capacity for abstract spatial reasoning, remember that the stereotype may actually be just that.