Textbooks and popular science books claim that women are superior at finding and remembering words, but is this true?
“Women are better. The female advantage is consistent across time and life span, but it is also relatively small”, says Marco Hirnstein, professor at The University of Bergen, Norway.
Hirnstein is curious about how biological, psychological, and social variables influence sex/gender disparities in cognitive skills, as well as the underlying brain mechanisms.
Will the results finally put an end to bar arguments over who is better?
“So far, the focus has mostly been on abilities, in which men excel. However, in recent years the focus has shifted more towards women”, says Hirnstein.
We thought Women were better – and they are!
The origins of these sex/gender differences; nature vs nurture – and the potential consequences of these differences have been hotly debated topics in society. Do men and women possess different talents for different occupations?
Textbooks and popular science books indicate that women are better at word searching than males. For instance, when identifying nouns that start with the letter “F” or words that fall within a certain category, such as fruits or animals. Additionally, it has been established as a “fact” that women are better at remembering words.
However, the real results are far more inconsistent than textbooks suggest: Other studies find a female advantage, some report a male advantage, and some find no advantage at all.
“Most intellectual skills show no or negligible differences in average performance between men and women. However, women excel in some tasks, while men excel in others on average”.
This might sound like stating the obvious, but Hirnstein and his colleagues point out how their findings can be useful in the diagnosis and in health care.
Critical relevance for the diagnosis of dementia
The results are relevant in at least two ways. First, they help to clarify whether the female advantage is real. Second, knowing about this sex/gender difference is important for interpreting the results of diagnostic assessments, in which those abilities are frequently tested.
For example, to determine whether somebody has dementia. Knowing that women are generally better in those tasks is critical to prevent being women under-diagnosed, due to their better average, baseline performance. And for men: That they are over-diagnosed, due to their lower average baseline performance.
Currently, many but not all assessments take sex/gender into account.
The Method is Meta
Hirnstein and his colleagues conducted a so-called “meta-analysis”, where they analyzed the combined data of all Ph.D. theses, master theses, and studies published in scientific journals they could find. This meta-analysis encompassed more than 500 measures from more than 350.000 participants.
The researchers found that women are indeed better. The advantage is small but consistent across the last 50 years and across an individual’s lifespan.
Moreover, they found that the female advantage depends on the sex/gender of the leading scientist: Female scientists report a larger female advantage, and male scientists report a smaller female advantage.
Reference: “Sex/Gender Differences in Verbal Fluency and Verbal-Episodic Memory: A Meta-Analysis” by Marco Hirnstein, Josephine Stuebs, Angelica Moè and Markus Hausmann, 22 July 2022, Perspectives on Psychological Science.