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To Close Gender Gap In Spatial Tasks, Change Perspective

Asking students to take another person's perspective can close girls' performance gaps with boys on spatial ability.

In a new study in the journal Psychological Science, Margaret Tarampi, an associate psychology instructor at the University of Utah, and colleagues Nahal Heydari and Mary Hegarty of the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted a series of experiments using two classic spatial ability tasks.

"When we were looking at the literature, it was so strange that we'd see that women would excel in social perspective-taking but were somehow not as good as males at spatial perspective-taking," Tarampi said. "That seemed wrong."

Perspective roadmap.JPG

In the first task, students saw a circle of objects, such as a house, tree, flower, and stop sign, and were asked to imagine themselves in the position of one of the objects and orient themselves to another object. In the second task, students were asked to mentally follow a route through a two-dimensional map (as seen in the map at left) and note when they turned right or left.

For some of the students performing each task, the students were instructed to imagine taking the perspective of another person rather than an object in the circle, or think of a person going through the path (as shown in the map at right.)

"One thing we do all the time is take perspective of other people," Tarampi said. "The social brain is focused all the time on making spatial connections, even when the situation doesn't call for it."

Across experiments using both tasks, the researchers found college-age young women performed significantly better when they were asked to take the perspective of another person, rather than an object. Young men of the same age performed equally well on both types of tasks. 

"We were pretty surprised by the findings, that just adding human figures to these tasks in itself could change these gender differences," Tarampi said. "We didn't see ceiling effects; there was still room to improve, which was very surprising for us. The males did pretty much exactly the same in their scores. It is engaging something differently for females in these human figures, beyond the simple ease or difficulty of the test."

Moreover, in a separate set of experiments in the same study, there was evidence that the difference in performance was at least partly because of the young women feeling stereotype threat, or a lowered performance when confronted with a reminder of the belief that girls supposedly have lower spatial ability than boys. When the instructions framed the task as a measure of "empathy," women performed better on navigating the road map—though not better on the circle-of-objects task. 

"We were trying to remind [women] of things they were traditionally expected to be good at," Tarampi said. Prior studies have found that telling women that women are good at mentally rotating objects can close gender gaps when they perform the task afterward —even though traditionally women have not performed as well on those tasks as men.

"It makes me question the nature of how we think of spatial ability," Tarampi said. 

Chart: Adding figures of people to a classic test of spatial perception significantly closed gender gaps in performing the task. Source: Margaret Tarampi, Psychological Science


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