Is Culture Behind Men's Better Spatial Reasoning?

By Joseph Castro | August 30, 2011 4:12 pm

spacing is important

What’s the News: In the long-running debate over the differences between men and women, one mental skill has emerged as being perhaps more biologically rooted than any other: the ability to solve problems involving physical spaces, shapes, or forms. Many studies have concluded that men simply seem to have an inherent advantage in this area. But a new study of two tribes in Northern India is suggesting that the gender gap we see in spatial skills may be partially due to culture rather than raw biology. This finding may affect the way researchers look at gender differences, but it will surely not settle the question, considering that it’s one study of a small group of people living in one limited environment.

How the Heck:

  • Economist Moshe Hoffman and his colleagues recruited 1,279 participants from two neighboring tribes in northern India, the Karbi and the Khasi. The two tribes are similar in many ways: they only separated a few hundred years ago and they are both made up of subsistence farmers mainly living on rice. But the tribes’ cultures are quite distinct. The Karbi are patrilineal—only men are supposed to own land, which is passed on to the oldest son. By contrast, in the Khasi tribe men are forbidden from owning land, property is passed down to the youngest daughter, and men are supposed to turn their earnings over to their wives or sisters.
  • The researchers timed how long their participants took to complete a simple four-piece puzzle of a horse. They found that in the Karbi tribe, men completed the block puzzle 36 percent faster than the women; the times were roughly equal across genders for the Khasi. On average, people from both tribes and genders took 40 seconds to complete the puzzle.
  • The team attributed about a third of the overall difference to education, as men in the patrilineal tribe receive about 3.5 years more education than women, while men and women in the matrilineal tribe are equally educated.
  • They also suggest that who owns a household—and how people are treated within that household—could have an impact on spatial abilities. In the Karbi tribe, some women own land and control the finances when there are no sons in the family; the researchers saw a decrease in the gender gap when they compared the scores of the people living in these households with those living in the male-owned households.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • Some scientists are not convinced that the study really tested spatial reasoning—the puzzle didn’t assess the participants’ accuracy at mentally rotating 3D figures, which traditional spatial-reasoning tests measure (via ScienceNews).
  • It’s unclear how universal the study’s results are, as the researchers only looked at two cultures.

Reference: M. Hoffman, U. Gneezy, J. List. Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities. PNAS, 2011. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015182108

Image courtesy of andrewrennie/Flickr

MORE ABOUT: math, mental math, PNAS, puzzle
  • Baramos

    Er, the YOUNGEST daughter? How in the world does that develop?

  • Zed

    Why did the tribes separate and why did they adopt different patterns of land ownership? There could be significant genetic differences which forced the separation and which now largely account for the differences in the results. Also, we like doing what we are good at. As a result, the effects of nature and nurture are just about impossible to unentangle.

  • ifinoxonifi

    “Is Culture Behind Men’s Better Spatial Reasoning?”—I shouldn’t have to point this out,but culture” is an ill defined concept and seems to be employed as an answer to nearly everything. Saying that culture is behind spatial reasoning is no more of a valid conclusion than saying that men’s superior spatial reasoning is behind men’s culture. It answers nothing and is just plain stupid.

  • kirk

    So men can improve more than women can improve due to culture. What culture wants is more improve-ABLE men so natural selection favors the construction where men do more of the spacial the heavy lifting. The behavior is selected (make men improve by whatever means) and the culture provides a feedback mechanism which reinforces the behavior (men doing things that make spacial cognition better).

  • Cathy

    I must be an exception to the gender difference in the US because I am female but am gifted in spacial analogies and visual-spacial reasoning. (Useless when your weak area is hard mathematics. I spent most of calc lab playing with the 3D model graphs because the equations were too frustrating.) I think a cultural difference might be a reasonable explanation.

  • Rob

    But, but, but… I’ve been raised by women, I do not identify with the ‘male’ stereotype, and often don’t understand how men think or behave. I grew up moving all over the place, and was not influenced by peer groups. The only clue I could find as to how to behave as a boy was to avoid doing what my sisters did, e.g. sunbathing, shorts, high heels, diets, etc. Even then I could not realistically behave opposite of them. I was much amazed in adulthood to realize that there is quite an overlap between male and female behavior, and that it had been a needless exercise. Even today I don’t fit in with, or even accept, gender roles and completely despise anything akin to the Ken and Barbie model. My studies were broken and unfocused but were not gender based -I had the same types of classes as my sisters. Because of this I have a male brain and a male body yet a gender confused world view and mixed up set of behavior rules. After a meeting or two most women don’t like me. Most men don’t like me almost immediately. I’m just something in-between to them. Yet unlike my sisters I process information ‘spatially’. Spatial reasoning as described by the article. As a result, I’ve been very good with computers and systems -not rules based, but at the functional level. With every fiber of my being I do not believe that spatial processing is a culture based learned trait. I truly (truly) from the depths of my being believe that (on the bell curve) most men process spatially to varying degrees by nature, not culture. Some men can do more with spatial reasoning than others, and some have a bigger arsenal of intelligence based tools to apply. But in very general terms it’s a male based phenomenon. Not that we all don’t do it to a certain degree, and that we can all improve on our inherent abilities. But on the bell curve men will always be stronger in this area then women. In general, on the bell curve. Of course individuals may perform outside of the gender norm.

  • Jeff C.

    My question is what their control was…? It doesn’t seem to me like they had one… The comparison is good… but insufficient… Maybe have kids from the tribe try the puzzle… And then maybe another culture… I don’t know, but having a control sounds more like a scientific method you can apply a theory to. Not this…

  • michaelG

    I thought cultural (training) influence was already well established? In one study forth grade girls substantial caught up with the boys in spatial reasoning after just a few weeks of playing Tetris. I assumed that this study was part of a larger body of research, but perhaps not.

    A recent research headline (sorry, didn’t read the article) suggested that priming for romance reduced women’s interest in STEM.

    Girls self selected preferences do not involve much in the way of spatial reasoning, but boys preferences do. (Are there any generational studies? With more girls participating in sports and playing video games perhaps the gender difference is shrinking?)

    If there is a genetic component to spatial reasoning I’m pretty sure it is either a) indirect, mediated by gender based activity preferences or b) small relative to environmental/cultural effects.

  • jonesk


    i think there’s a cogent idea hidden somewhere in there but i cant find it. what are you saying, exactly?

    “So men can improve more than women can improve”
    improve, what? in general? spatial reasoning? something else entirely?
    “What culture wants is more”
    culture has “wants”? culture has desires? bizarre wording

    “the culture provides a feedback mechanism which reinforces the behavior”

    the only part that makes sense

    i think it would have made a good comment with a little more editing and proofreading

  • Valerie

    It is important to remember not to generalize too broadly. There are exceptions to the rule on both sides. There are some men who are weak in spatial skills, and some women who are strong in spatial skills.

    It is interesting to look at some professions requiring good spatial skills to see the division of genders in those areas. One new profession is 3D computer graphics modelling. I happen to be one of those women who are gifted in spatial abilities. I was an electronics technician in the military, and now years later, in retirement, I have drifted into 3D modelling. I love it! I look around me though and see more men than women working in this area.

    I would like to see more studies following up looking at occupational divisions in gender in trades or professions that require spatial skills, and the link to raw potential and education.

  • Grey

    In a culture where two groups receive equal education and neither group is diminished, they score about the same on spatial reasoning tests. But in a society where one group is favored and receives more education, that group scores higher on spatial reasoning tests. That seems completely logical. It’s like saying a group of basketball players has a better percentage for free throws than a group of non-players. Of course! It’s a skill-set they use frequently and they are expected to be able to do it.

    The real proof in the pudding of studying gender differences is that as gender equity seeps into the fibers of patriarchal societies, female scores on tests like these go up while male scores remain the same. What we think of as ‘gender’ is much more a product of nurture than of nature. Hopefully soon the notion that gender has anything to do with math skill will be as antiquated a notion as race or nobility factoring into math ability.

  • Joan

    When I entered college (ill-prepared by my high school) many, many year ago, I had to drop out of the first trig class because I wasn’t “getting it”. I retried with a woman instructor and lo and behold ended up with an A in that class. I have always attributed that to a female brain instructing my female brain and making everything perfectly clear.

  • floodmouse

    I’m very accurate at mentally rotating 3-D objects, but I need extra time to complete the task. Maybe speed and accuracy should be scored separately. Accuracy might indicate aptitute, while speed might indicate practice. It is possible that boys get more practice solving problems involving shapes and spatial relationships (e.g., boys are more often encouraged to learn auto mechanics). When I was a kid, I was never allowed to touch anything mechanical on the premise that I might break it. This may be an individual thing, not a gender thing. However, shouldn’t fMRI scanning shed some light on this issue? Surely there are identifiable parts of the brain that light up when the spatial tasks are being done. My gut feeling is that Rob is correct about the bell curve, but I have been wrong before. This should definitely be measurable.

  • Rob

    Ok, taking it from a different angle. Although gender neutrality and equity is important in our society, and I support that, it cannot be ignored that there are physiological differences between the male and female brains. How this comes to be is not known to me, perhaps some genetic and hormonal influences added to the environmental (cultural) affects during key developmental periods. The danger with fighting this political gender equity battle in biology is that it will result in educational programs geared toward helping people improve their deficits while neglecting the talented that should be honing their competencies.

    In general we should want the best cook to learn to cook better, the best mathematician to raise to the next level, and the best surgeon to become even better. In other words, I don’t want the best surgeon wasting their time becoming and ok mathematician or an acceptable cook. (don’t over analyze the choice of occupations, I have friends of all three).

    It becomes very philosophical amounting to the difference between knack and skill. And disconcerting that we should use bias to try and make every class room, office, lab, etc, have a representative from every politically motivated category we can come up with. People will find their strengths are apparent, they do not need to be ‘discovered’.

  • CK

    “Research shows that fewer than 16 percent of tenure-track positions in many math-intensive fields are held by women (pdf).”

    Please note that this is not correct.

    First, you have not accurately quoted the article to which you have linked. That article refers to “the top 100 US universities.”

    Second, the article itself has not accurately quoted from its source. Details about this are here:

    The Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences survey found that in PhD-granting mathematics departments, women were 24% of tenure-track mathematics faculty in fall 2005.

    In MA-granting mathematics departments, women were 33% of of tenure-track mathematics faculty in fall 2005.

    In BA-granting mathematics departments, women were 28% of tenure-track mathematics faculty in fall 2005.

  • http://n/a Grey

    What this study suggests is that on that bell curve, if given equal opportunity and encouragement, the genders will score about the same. And that the score disparity between the genders in the U.S. (perceived in our culture to be the result of a genetic gender difference) is not due to a genetic difference at all but is due to a learned difference. There are differences in men and women. Spatial reasoning does not appear to be one of them.

  • Pippa

    Whether there are overall gender differences or not in any skill, the majority of women and men will be in the parts of their gender determined bell curves that over lap. In other words, for any individual these trends do not mean a thing. What does make a difference is having an educational system that allows each individual to learn in the way that best fits their cognitive profile and builds on their strengths.

  • Rob

    “What does make a difference is having an educational system that allows each individual to learn in the way that best fits their cognitive profile and builds on their strengths.” Is a very wise comment. What would be unfortunate is for studies to pigeon hole groups of people by defining how people do and don’t think which in turn is ultimately used by beaurocrats to define what the classrooms or workplace should look like. Just because it’s politically correct, it’s not really beneficial to say that men and women both carry the same potential for spacial reasoning without solid proof because it implies that men and women without strengths in spatial reasoning are at a deficit. It’s the opposite side of the coin that is conerning. We need to get more out of our communal intelligence by everyone mining their own strengths, whatever the may be, why ever they may be. Beyond that, I’d be surprised if the characteristic of spatial reasoning isn’t more predominant for men than women. And I would be surprised if it isn’t biologically based.

  • cassandra

    For quite some time, the theory that gender differences exist for spatial reasoning has been on the precipice of being totally debunked (many would say it has already been debunked, and solidly for that matter). A quick google search or Wikipedia will take you to many studies already published. It is difficult to find groups of people who are so similar and differentiate only in terms of patrilineal/matrilineal culture, however. That was why testing these otherwise similar groups was so exciting for researchers, it isolates cultural differences in a way that is difficult to do in the modern world.

  • Idlewild

    I wonder if this study would be different if it was done with matri and patri lineal cultures in America. For example, something male dominated, like Hutterites, and something female dominated, like Wiccans or nuns. While the Khasi might be fond of female leaders, the general culture of India isn’t very equal for women in matters of marriage, employment, or religion. To truly see how culture effects spatial reasoning, it would be better to do this study in a country with higher standards of equality.


    I always find these articles interesting. I am a female scientist that had to fight for right to study what I was interested in. I can believe that there is a genetic component that promotes spatial ability but not necessarily a male connection. In my family of 6 siblings the 3 girls have the enhanced spatial ability with the associated strong math skills. The 3 boys have stronger art, language and mechanical skills. My daughter is also gifted in math along with my great niece.

    From my experience of growing up and working in a “man’s” world most women that are not very strong minded could easily be persueded that they should not use their abilities and end up with mental blocks and other issues. Cultural training is a very strong demotivating factor in a persons use of their innate abilities.

  • LadyCom

    I believe there could be a physiological dimension to spatial ability, but it would be short-sighted to deny that environments, media, education and social relations (culture) encourage and augment or hinder and diminish these abilities across the board in men and women. Gender is by no means a universal category. Many of the women I know are exemplary spatial reasoners and thinkers, working in professions like architecture and engineering. I also know more than a few men who prefer to work through problems linguistically rather than spatially reason.

  • victorian79

    I think that this is a socialization problem rather than just a difference in potential. As a society we treat girls and boys different and it shows when you walk into a store and see toy sections marked by gender. In the Girl’s section there are toy vacuums and kitchens and in the Boy’s section there are building materials and constructions sets. I find these presumed preferences extremely offensive and that they are outdated for the way we raise our children now. This is just one example, but it shows a marked difference in how society views the socializing and education of girls versus boys.


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