from an MIT student. And it contained a discussion of a remarkable study I hadn’t come across before, on how to eliminate the gap between men and women on mental rotation. It turns out that just spending a little time imagining oneself as a stereotypical male raises women’s scores so dramatically the gap is reduced to statistical insignificance.
In a now-famous study, psychologists at the University of Berlin falsely told participants that they had been selected to participate in a series of tests “to measure the ability to put oneself in someone else’s position” – a fabrication devised to avoid confounding factors in their real study on gender identity priming. They prepared a text describing a day in the life of a “stereotypical woman” who takes care of her family, works part time, and is insightful, helpful, and agreeable. They also prepared an equivalently-structured text outlining the activities of a stereotypical manly man who is tough, risk-taking, and does weight training after work. Subjects were randomly given one of the two texts, and then asked: “If you were the person described in the text, which adjectives would you use to describe yourself?”
Soon after participants described themselves with either the male- or female-associated traits, they were asked to take a mental rotation test presented as independent of the first part of the study, supposedly to measure their personal spatial aptitude. On this mental rotation test, women who were “primed” with the female identity scored an average of 3.86 on the exercise, compared to the female-primed males’ average of 5.14. Okay, expected. But then when primed with the male text, women scored an average of 5.49, while men scored 5.53… wait a second, what?
As it turns out, there is zero statistically significant gender difference in mental rotation ability after test-takers are asked to imagine themselves as stereotypical men for a few minutes. None. An entire standard deviation of female underperformance is negated on this condition, just as a man’s performance is slightly hindered if he instead imagines himself as a woman. (well then.) Although this study is of course not a logically definitive answer to all things “nature versus nurture,” it does add a tremendous structural asset to the growing mountain of evidence that “natural” ability differences are confounded by identity and subconscious self-stereotyping. Demographic expectations may be subtle or overt, but they are omnipresent, and they are likely much more powerful than most of us have ever considered.
Thanks to S, and S, for calling this article to my attention!