gender

Development of mathematics in children — a round-up of recent news

August, 2012
  • Fifth grade students' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement.
  • School entrants’ spatial skills predicted later number sense and estimation skills.
  • Gender differences in math performance may rest in part on differences in retrieval practice.
  • ‘Math’ training for infants may be futile, given new findings that they’re unable to integrate two mechanisms for number estimation.

Grasp of fractions and long division predicts later math success

One possible approach to improving mathematics achievement comes from a recent study finding that fifth graders' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement, even after statistically controlling for parents' education and income and for the children's own age, gender, I.Q., reading comprehension, working memory, and knowledge of whole number addition, subtraction and multiplication.

The study compared two nationally representative data sets, one from the U.S. and one from the United Kingdom. The U.S. set included 599 children who were tested in 1997 as 10-12 year-olds and again in 2002 as 15-17-year-olds. The set from the U.K. included 3,677 children who were tested in 1980 as 10-year-olds and in 1986 as 16-year-olds.

You can watch a short video of Siegler discussing the study and its implications at http://youtu.be/7YSj0mmjwBM.

Spatial skills improve children’s number sense

More support for the idea that honing spatial skills leads to better mathematical ability comes from a new children’s study.

The study found that first- and second-graders with the strongest spatial skills at the beginning of the school year showed the most improvement in their number line sense over the course of the year. Similarly, in a second experiment, not only were those children with better spatial skills at 5 ½ better on a number-line test at age 6, but this number line knowledge predicted performance on a math estimation task at age 8.

Hasty answers may make boys better at math

A study following 311 children from first to sixth grade has revealed gender differences in their approach to math problems. The study used single-digit addition problems, and focused on the strategy of directly retrieving the answer from long-term memory.

Accurate retrieval in first grade was associated with working memory capacity and intelligence, and predicted a preference for direct retrieval in second grade. However, at later grades the relation reversed, such that preference in one grade predicted accuracy and speed in the next grade.

Unlike girls, boys consistently preferred to use direct retrieval, favoring speed over accuracy. In the first and second grades, this was seen in boys giving more answers in total, and more wrong answers. Girls, on the other hand, were right more often, but responded less often and more slowly. By sixth grade, however, the boys’ practice was paying off, and they were both answering more problems and getting more correct.

In other words, while ability was a factor in early skilled retrieval, the feedback loop of practice and skill leads to practice eventually being more important than ability — and the relative degrees of practice may underlie some of the gender differences in math performance.

The findings also add weight to the view being increasingly expressed, that mistakes are valuable and educational approaches that try to avoid mistakes (e.g., errorless learning) should be dropped.

Infants can’t compare big and small groups

Our brains process large and small numbers of objects using two different mechanisms, seen in the ability to estimate numbers of items at a glance and the ability to visually track small sets of objects. A new study indicates that at age one, infants can’t yet integrate those two processes. Accordingly, while they can choose the larger of two sets of items when both sets are larger or smaller than four, they can’t distinguish between a large (above four) and small (below four) set.

In the study, infants consistently chose two food items over one and eight items over four, but chose randomly when asked to compare two versus four and two versus eight.

The researchers suggest that educational programs that claim to give children an advantage by teaching them arithmetic at an early age are unlikely to be effective for this reason.

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Alzheimer's risk gene disrupts brain function in older women, but not men

August, 2012

A new study indicates that carrying the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’ may be a significant risk factor for women only.

While the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’ is relatively common — the ApoE4 mutation is present in around 15% of the population — having two copies of the mutation is, thankfully, much rarer, at around 2%. Having two copies is of course a major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, and it has been thought that having a single copy is also a significant (though lesser) risk factor. Certainly there is quite a lot of evidence linking ApoE4 carriers to various markers of cognitive impairment.

And yet, the evidence has not been entirely consistent. I have been puzzled by this myself, and now a new finding suggests a reason. It appears there are gender differences in responses to this gene variant.

The study involved 131 healthy older adults (median age 70), whose brains were scanned. The scans revealed that in older women with the E4 variant, brain activity showed the loss of synchronization that is typically seen in Alzheimer’s patients, with the precuneus (a major hub in the default mode network) out of sync with other brain regions. This was not observed in male carriers.

The finding was confirmed by a separate set of data, taken from the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative database. Cerebrospinal fluid from 91 older adults (average age 75) revealed that female carriers had substantially higher levels of tau protein (a key Alzheimer’s biomarker) than male carriers or non-carriers.

It’s worth emphasizing that the participants in the first study were all cognitively normal — the loss of synchronization was starting to happen before visible Alzheimer’s symptoms appeared.

The findings suggest that men have less to worry about than women, as far as the presence of this gene is concerned. The study may also explain why more women than men get the disease (3 women to 2 men); it is not (although of course this is a factor) simply a consequence of women tending to live longer.

Whether or not these gender differences extend to carriers of two copies of the gene is another story.

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Gender differences in effects of anxiety on performance

July, 2012

Two studies indicate that, while anxiety is present in both sexes, it only impairs performance in females.

A British study looking at possible gender differences in the effects of math anxiety involved 433 secondary school children (11-16 years old) completing customized (year appropriate) mental mathematics tests as well as questionnaires designed to assess math anxiety and (separately) test anxiety. These sources of anxiety are often confounded in research studies (and in real life!), and while they are indeed related, reported correlations are moderate, ranging from .30 to .50.

Previous research has been inconsistent as regards gender differences in math anxiety. While many studies have found significantly greater levels of math anxiety in females, many studies have found no difference, and some have even found higher levels in males. These inconsistencies may stem from differences in how math anxiety is defined or measured.

The present study looked at a rather more subtle question: does the connection between math anxiety and math performance differ by gender? Again, previous research has produced inconsistent findings.

Findings in this study were very clear: while there was no difference between boys and girls in math performance, there were marked differences in both math and test anxiety. Girls showed significantly greater levels of both. Both boys and girls showed a positive correlation between math anxiety and test anxiety, and a negative correlation between math anxiety and math performance, and test anxiety and performance. However, these relationships between anxiety and performance were stronger for girls than boys, with the correlation between test anxiety and performance being only marginally significant for boys (p<0.07), and the correlation between math anxiety and performance disappearing once test anxiety was controlled for.

In other words, greater math anxiety was linked to poorer math performance, but it was significant only for girls. Moreover, anxiety experienced by boys may simply reflect test anxiety, rather than specific math anxiety.

It is worth emphasizing that there was no gender difference in performance — that is, despite laboring under the burden of greater levels of anxiety, the girls did just as well as boys. This suggests that girls might do better than boys if they were free of anxiety. It is possible, however, that levels of anxiety didn’t actually differ between boys and girls — that the apparent difference stems from girls feeling more free to express their anxiety.

However, the finding that anxiety is greater in girls than boys is in line with evidence that anxiety (and worry in particular) is twice as prevalent in women as men, and more support for the idea that the girls are under-performing because of their anxiety comes from another recent study.

In this study, 149 college students performed a relatively simple task while their brain activity was measured. Specifically, they had to identify the middle letter in a series of five-letter groups. Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four ("FFFFF") while sometimes it was different ("EEFEE"). Afterward the students completed questionnaires about their anxiety and how much they worry (Penn State Worry Questionnaire and the Anxious Arousal subscale of the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire).

Anxiety scores were significantly negatively correlated with accuracy on the task; worry scores were unrelated to performance.

Only girls who identified themselves as particularly anxious or big worriers recorded high brain activity when they made mistakes during the task (reflecting greater performance-monitoring). Although these women performed about the same as others on simple portions of the task, their brains had to work harder at it. Then, as the test became more difficult, the anxious females performed worse, suggesting worrying got in the way of completing the task.

Greater performance monitoring was not evident among anxious men.

[A reminder: these are group differences, and don't mean that all men or all women react in these ways.]

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How cognitive reserve helps protect seniors from cognitive decline

May, 2012

Greater cognitive activity doesn’t appear to prevent Alzheimer’s brain damage, but is associated with more neurons in the prefrontal lobe, as well as other gender-specific benefits.

Data from the very large and long-running Cognitive Function and Ageing Study, a U.K. study involving 13,004 older adults (65+), from which 329 brains are now available for analysis, has found that cognitive lifestyle score (CLS) had no effect on Alzheimer’s pathology. Characteristics typical of Alzheimer’s, such as plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and hippocampal atrophy, were similar in all CLS groups.

However, while cognitive lifestyle may have no effect on the development of Alzheimer's pathology, that is not to say it has no effect on the brain. In men, an active cognitive lifestyle was associated with less microvascular disease. In particular, the high CLS group showed an 80% relative reduction in deep white matter lesions. These associations remained after taking into account cardiovascular risk factors and APOE status.

This association was not found in women. However, women in the high CLS group tended to have greater brain weight.

In both genders, high CLS was associated with greater neuronal density and cortical thickness in Brodmann area 9 in the prefrontal lobe (but not, interestingly, in the hippocampus).

Cognitive lifestyle score is produced from years of education, occupational complexity coded according to social class and socioeconomic grouping, and social engagement based on frequency of contact with relatives, neighbors, and social events.

The findings provide more support for the ‘cognitive reserve’ theory, and shed some light on the mechanism, which appears to be rather different than we imagined. It may be that the changes in the prefrontal lobe (that we expected to see in the hippocampus) are a sign that greater cognitive activity helps you develop compensatory networks, rather than building up established ones. This would be consistent with research suggesting that older adults who maintain their cognitive fitness do so by developing new strategies that involve different regions, compensating for failing regions.

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Menopause ‘brain fog’ a product of poor sleep and depression?

May, 2012

A smallish study of women approaching and in menopause found that some experienced poorer working memory and attention, and these were more likely to have poorer sleep, depression, and anxiety.

A study involving 75 perimenopausal women aged 40 to 60 has found that those with memory complaints tended to show impairments in working memory and attention. Complaints were not, however, associated with verbal learning or memory.

Complaints were also associated with depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, and sleep disturbance. But they weren’t linked to hormone levels (although estrogen is an important hormone for learning and memory).

What this suggests to me is that a primary cause of these cognitive impairments may be poor sleep, and anxiety/depression. A few years ago, I reported on a study that found that, although women’s reports of how many hot flashes they had didn’t correlate with memory impairment, an objective measure of the number of flashes they experienced during sleep did. Sleep, as I know from personal experience, is of sufficient importance that my rule-of-thumb is: don’t bother looking for any other causes of attention and memory deficits until you have sorted out your sleep!

Having said that, depressive symptoms showed greater relationship to memory complaints than sleep disturbance.

It’s no big surprise to hear that it is working memory in particular that is affected, because what many women at this time of life complain of is ‘brain fog’ — the feeling that your brain is full of cotton-wool. This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn new information, or remember old information. But it does mean that these tasks will be impeded to the extent that you need to hold on to too many bits of information. So mental arithmetic might be more difficult, or understanding complex sentences, or coping with unexpected disruptions to your routine, or concentrating on a task for a long time.

These sorts of problems are typical of those produced by on-going sleep deprivation, stress, and depression.

One caveat to the findings is that the study participants tended to be of above-average intelligence and education. This would protect them to a certain extent from cognitive decline — those with less cognitive reserve might display wider impairment. Other studies have found verbal memory, and processing speed, impaired during menopause.

Note, too, that a long-running, large population study has found no evidence for a decline in working memory, or processing speed, in women as they pass through perimenopause and menopause.

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Music and sports training help spatial skills differently for men and women

March, 2012

While sports training benefits the spatial skills of both men and women, music training closes the gender gap by only helping women.

I talked recently about how the well-established difference in spatial ability between men and women apparently has a lot to do with confidence. I also mentioned in passing that previous research has shown that training can close the gender gap. A recent study suggests that this training may not have to be specific to spatial skills.

In the German study, 120 students were given a processing speed test and a standard mental rotation test. The students were evenly divided into three groups: musicians, athletes, and education students who didn’t participate in either sports or music.

While the expected gender gap was found among the education students, the gap was smaller among the sports students, and non-existent in the music students.

Among the education students, men got twice as many rotation problems correct as women. Among the sports students, both men and women did better than their peers in education, but since they were both about equally advantaged, a gender gap was still maintained. However, among the musicians, it was only women who benefited, bringing them up to the level of the men.

Thus, for males, athletes did best on mental rotation; for females, musicians did best.

Although it may be that those who went into music or sports had relevant “natural abilities”, the amount of training in sports/music did have a significant effect. Indeed, analysis found that the advantage of sports and music students disappeared when hours of practice and years of practicing were included.

Interestingly, too, there was an effect of processing speed. Although overall the three groups didn’t differ in processing speed, male musicians had a lower processing speed than female musicians, or male athletes (neither of which groups were significantly different from each other).

It is intriguing that music training should only benefit females’ spatial abilities. However, I’m reminded that in research showing how a few hours of video game training can help females close the gender gap, females benefited from the training far more than men. The obvious conclusion is that the males already had sufficient experience, and a few more hours were neither here nor there. Perhaps the question should rather be: why does sports practice benefit males’ spatial skills? A question that seems to point to the benefits for processing speed, but then we have to ask why sports didn’t have the same effect on women. One possible answer here is that the women had engaged in sports for a significantly shorter time (an average of 10.6 years vs 17.55), meaning that the males tended to begin their sports training at a much younger age. There was no such difference among the musicians.

(For more on spatial memory, see the aggregated news reports)

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Pietsch, S., & Jansen, P. (2012). Different mental rotation performance in students of music, sport and education. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(1), 159-163. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.11.012

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Group settings hurt expressions of intelligence, especially in women

March, 2012

Comparing performance on an IQ test when it is given under normal conditions and when it is given in a group situation reveals that IQ drops in a group setting, and for some (mostly women) it drops dramatically.

This is another demonstration of stereotype threat, which is also a nice demonstration of the contextual nature of intelligence. The study involved 70 volunteers (average age 25; range 18-49), who were put in groups of 5. Participants were given a baseline IQ test, on which they were given no feedback. The group then participated in a group IQ test, in which 92 multi-choice questions were presented on a monitor (both individual and group tests were taken from Cattell’s culture fair intelligence test). Each question appeared to each person at the same time, for a pre-determined time. After each question, they were provided with feedback in the form of their own relative rank within the group, and the rank of one other group member. Ranking was based on performance on the last 10 questions. Two of each group had their brain activity monitored.

Here’s the remarkable thing. If you gather together individuals on the basis of similar baseline IQ, then you can watch their IQ diverge over the course of the group IQ task, with some dropping dramatically (e.g., 17 points from a mean IQ of 126). Moreover, even those little affected still dropped some (8 points from a mean IQ of 126).

Data from the 27 brain scans (one had to be omitted for technical reasons) suggest that everyone was initially hindered by the group setting, but ‘high performers’ (those who ended up scoring above the median) managed to largely recover, while ‘low performers’ (those who ended up scoring below the median) never did.

Personality tests carried out after the group task found no significant personality differences between high and low performers, but gender was a significant variable: 10/13 high performers were male, while 11/14 low performers were female (remember, there was no difference in baseline IQ — this is not a case of men being smarter!).

There were significant differences between the high and low performers in activity in the amygdala and the right lateral prefrontal cortex. Specifically, all participants had an initial increase in amygdala activation and diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex, but by the end of the task, the high-performing group showed decreased amygdala activation and increased prefrontal cortex activation, while the low performers didn’t change. This may reflect the high performers’ greater ability to reduce their anxiety. Activity in the nucleus accumbens was similar in both groups, and consistent with the idea that the students had expectations about the relative ranking they were about to receive.

It should be pointed out that the specific feedback given — the relative ranking — was not a factor. What’s important is that it was being given at all, and the high performers were those who became less anxious as time went on, regardless of their specific ranking.

There are three big lessons here. One is that social pressure significantly depresses talent (meetings make you stupid?), and this seems to be worse when individuals perceive themselves to have a lower social rank. The second is that our ability to regulate our emotions is important, and something we should put more energy into. And the third is that we’ve got to shake ourselves loose from the idea that IQ is something we can measure in isolation. Social context matters.

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Confidence is key to women's spatial skills

March, 2012

A series of experiments has found that confidence fully accounted for women’s poorer performance on a mental rotation task.

One of the few established cognitive differences between men and women lies in spatial ability. But in recent years, this ‘fact’ has been shaken by evidence that training can close the gap between the genders. In this new study, 545 students were given a standard 3D mental rotation task, while at the same time manipulating their confidence levels.

In the first experiment, 70 students were asked to rate their confidence in each answer. They could also choose not to answer. Confidence level was significantly correlated with performance both between and within genders.

On the face of it, these findings could be explained, of course, by the ability of people to be reliable predictors of their own performance. However, the researchers claim that regression analysis shows clearly that when the effect of confidence was taken into account, gender differences were eliminated. Moreover, gender significantly predicted confidence.

But of course this is still just indicative.

In the next experiment, however, the researchers tried to reduce the effect of confidence. One group of 87 students followed the same procedure as in the first experiment (“omission” group), except they were not asked to give confidence ratings. Another group of 87 students was not permitted to miss out any questions (“commission” group). The idea here was that confidence underlay the choice of whether or not to answer a question, so while the first group should perform similarly to those in the first experiment, the second group should be less affected by their confidence level.

This is indeed what was found: men significantly outperformed women in the first condition, but didn’t in the second condition. In other words, it appears that the mere possibility of not answering makes confidence an important factor.

In the third experiment, 148 students replicated the commission condition of the second experiment with the additional benefit of being allowed unlimited time. Half of the students were required to give confidence ratings.

The advantage of unlimited time improved performance overall. More importantly, the results confirmed those produced earlier: confidence ratings produced significant gender differences; there were no gender differences in the absence of such ratings.

In the final experiment, 153 students were required to complete an intentionally difficult line judgment task, which men and women both carried out at near chance levels. They were then randomly informed that their performance had been either above average (‘high confidence’) or below average (‘low confidence’). Having manipulated their confidence, the students were then given the standard mental rotation task (omission version).

As expected (remember this is the omission procedure, where subjects could miss out answers), significant gender differences were found. But there was also a significant difference between the high and low confidence groups. That is, telling people they had performed well (or badly) on the first task affected how well they did on the second. Importantly, women in the high confidence group performed as well as men in the low confidence group.

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Gender

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Gender gap in math is culture-based

Data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment, representing 493,495 students ages 14-16 from 69 countries, have revealed only very small gender differences overall, but marked variation when nations are compared. For example, there are more girls in the top tier in countries such as Iceland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom–and even in certain U.S. populations, such as Asian-Americans. However, despite overall similarities in math skills, boys felt significantly more confident in their abilities than girls did and were more motivated to do well. Furthermore, although some studies have found more males than females scoring above the 95th or 99th percentile, this gender gap has significantly narrowed over time in the U.S. and is not found among some ethnic groups and in some nations. Greater male variability with respect to mathematics, where it exists, correlates with several measures of gender inequality.

[707] Hyde JS, Mertz JE. Gender, culture, and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2009 ;106(22):8801 - 8807. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/22/8801.abstract

Else-Quest, N.M., Hyde, J.S. & Linn, M.C. 2010. Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(1), 103-127.

http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/math-quiz-why-do-men-predominate 

http://www.physorg.com/news181915640.html

Positive stereotypes can offset negative stereotype effect

A number of studies have now shown that negative stereotypes can impair cognitive performance, mainly through adding to working memory load. A new study has now shown that this effect can be mitigated by the activation of a positive stereotype. The research takes advantage of the fact that we all belong to several social groups. In this case, the relevant groups were ‘female’ and ‘college student’. As usual, when (subtly) reminded of negative stereotypes for women and math, women performed worse. The interesting thing was that this didn’t happen if women were also made aware that college students performed better at math than non-college students. Moreover, this was reflected in working memory capacity. It seems that, when both a positive and a negative stereotype are offered, people will tend to choose the positive stereotype, and the effects of this will cancel out the negative stereotype. It’s also worth noting how easily these stereotypes are activated: effects could be manipulated simply by subtly changing demographic questions asked before the test (and it is not uncommon that test-takers are first required to answer some demographic questions).

[1381] Rydell RJ, McConnell AR, Beilock SL. Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [Internet]. 2009 ;96(5):949 - 966. Available from: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/96/5/949/

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-05/iu-pob050109.php

Sex difference on spatial skill test linked to brain structure

It’s been well established that men (as a group) consistently out-perform women on spatial tasks. Research has also established that the parietal lobes in women tend to have proportionally more gray matter. Now a new study shows that the thicker cortex in the parietal lobe in women is associated with poorer mental rotation ability. It also reveals that the surface area of the parietal lobe is increased in men, compared to women, and this is directly related to better performance on mental rotation tasks. It also appears that, perhaps because the brain structure is different between men and women, the way the brain performs the task is different. While men appear able to globally rotate an object in space, women seem to do it piecemeal.

[1159] Koscik T, O'Leary D, Moser DJ, Andreasen NC, Nopoulos P. Sex differences in parietal lobe morphology: Relationship to mental rotation performance. Brain and Cognition [Internet]. 2009 ;69(3):451 - 459. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WBY-4TVJJVD-1/2/6e14e38732368a5e27f27df16b8c829e

http://www.physorg.com/news148740976.html

Gender gap in spatial skills starts in infancy

On their own, the findings reported above do not answer the question of whether gender differences in spatial ability are biological or cultural, as differences in brain structure and performance can be caused by different experiences during childhood. However, research has repeatedly found a gender difference in mental rotation in children four years and older, and now a new study has found evidence that male superiority in mental rotation is present in infants as young as 5 months old.

[703] Moore DS, Johnson SP. Mental rotation in human infants: a sex difference. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2008 ;19(11):1063 - 1066. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19076473

http://www.physorg.com/news148046936.html

Gender differences in memory

A series of experiments looking at memory performance in men and women has revealed that women did better at verbal episodic memory tasks, such as remembering words, objects, pictures or everyday events, and men outperformed women in remembering symbolic, non-linguistic information, known as visuospatial processing. But women were again better on tasks that require both verbal and visuospatial processing, such as remembering the location of car keys. Women were also better at remembering faces, especially female faces. They also remembered androgynous faces presented as female more accurately than the androgynous faces presented as male, suggesting the reason is that women pay more attention to female than to male faces. Women also performed better than men in tasks requiring little to no verbal processing, such as recognition of familiar odors. But environmental factors, such as education, seem to influence the magnitude of these sex differences.

[1078] Herlitz A, Rehnman J. Sex Differences in Episodic Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science [Internet]. 2008 ;17(1):52 - 56. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00547.x

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-02/afps-tgr022008.php

Review supports mild memory impairment in pregnancy

A review of 14 studies testing the memory performances of more than 1,000 pregnant women, mothers and non-pregnant women, has found that pregnant women performed significantly worse on some, but not all aspects of the test. The hardest tests for the pregnant women were those that involved new or demanding tasks. Regular, well-practiced memory tasks were unlikely to be affected. The impairment wasn’t large — comparable to the modest deficits you'd find when comparing healthy 20-year-olds with healthy 60-year-olds. However, the impairment was sometimes still evident a year after birth (none looked beyond that point).

[876] Henry JD, Rendell PG. A review of the impact of pregnancy on memory function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology [Internet]. 2007 ;29(8):793 - 793. Available from: http://www.informaworld.com/10.1080/13803390701612209

http://www.physorg.com/news121413361.html

Stereotype-induced math anxiety robs women's working memory

Another study finds evidence that being told men are better at mathematics undermines women's math performance, and extends it by demonstrating that the anxiety induced by the stereotype mainly reduced the verbal part of working memory, and that this carried over to subsequent (non-math-related) tasks. The accuracy of women exposed to the stereotype was reduced from nearly 90% in a pretest to about 80% after being told men do better in mathematics. Among women not receiving that message, performance actually improved slightly.

[505] Beilock SL, Rydell RJ, McConnell AR. Stereotype Threat and Working Memory: Mechanisms, Alleviation, and Spillover. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General [Internet]. 2007 ;136(2):256 - 276. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6X07-4NY0MNX-6/2/61640f4a28b8658c105602886b4ac75d

http://www.physorg.com/news99239898.html
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-05/uoc-sma052107.php

Gender differences in the brain

Results from an extremely large internet survey looking at sex-linked cognitive abilities, personality traits, interests, sexual attitudes and behavior, as well as physical traits, has found that cognitive abilities decline with age more steeply in men than in women. This effect is independent of sexual orientation. Differences in specific cognitive abilities were also found that did depend on sexual orientation as well as gender. Men scored higher than women on tests of mental rotation and the ability to judge line angles, whereas women scored higher than men on tests of object location memory and word fluency. However, homosexual men's visual-spatial abilities were, on average, lower than those of heterosexual men, and lesbian women's visual-spatial abilities were higher than those of heterosexual women.

[1181] Maylor EA, Reimers S, Choi J, Collaer ML, Peters M, Silverman I. Gender and sexual orientation differences in cognition across adulthood: age is kinder to women than to men regardless of sexual orientation. Archives of Sexual Behavior [Internet]. 2007 ;36(2):235 - 249. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17351741

[945] Collaer ML, Reimers S, Manning JT. Visuospatial performance on an internet line judgment task and potential hormonal markers: sex, sexual orientation, and 2D:4D. Archives of Sexual Behavior [Internet]. 2007 ;36(2):177 - 192. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17380373

[905] Peters M, Manning J, Reimers S. The Effects of Sex, Sexual Orientation, and Digit Ratio (2D:4D) on Mental Rotation Performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior [Internet]. 2007 ;36(2):251 - 260. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10508-006-9166-8

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070507113352.htm

Sex and prenatal hormones affect cognitive performance

A study involving rhesus macaque monkeys has found that the tendency to use landmarks for navigation is typical only of females. In a situation where they had to navigate an open area to locate highly valued food items in goal boxes, gender or prenatal treatment did not affect how well the monkeys did when both spatial and marker cues were available. When landmarks directly indicated the correct locations but spatial information was unreliable, females performed better than males. Moreover, males whose testosterone exposure had been blocked early in gestation were more able to use the landmarks to navigate than normal males.

[1186] Herman RA, Wallen K. Cognitive performance in rhesus monkeys varies by sex and prenatal androgen exposure. Hormones and Behavior [Internet]. 2007 ;51(4):496 - 507. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WGC-4MXBFC8-2/2/912c229dc4c8c3df0527fad05321a478

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070413102051.htm
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-04/eu-sap041207.php

Implicit stereotypes and gender identification may affect female math performance

Relatedly, another study has come out showing that women enrolled in an introductory calculus course who possessed strong implicit gender stereotypes, (for example, automatically associating "male" more than "female" with math ability and math professions) and were likely to identify themselves as feminine, performed worse relative to their female counterparts who did not possess such stereotypes and who were less likely to identify with traditionally female characteristics. Strikingly, a majority of the women participating in the study explicitly expressed disagreement with the idea that men have superior math ability, suggesting that even when consciously disavowing stereotypes, female math students are still susceptible to negative perceptions of their ability.

[969] Kiefer AK, Sekaquaptewa D. Implicit stereotypes, gender identification, and math-related outcomes: a prospective study of female college students. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2007 ;18(1):13 - 18. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17362371

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-01/afps-isa012407.php

Women's math performance affected by theories on sex differences

In a salutary reminder to all researchers into gender and race differences, researchers found that women who received a genetic explanation for female underachievement in math or were reminded of the stereotype about female math underachievement, performed more poorly on math tests than those who received an experiential explanation (such as math teachers treating boys preferentially during the first years of math education) or were led to believe there are no sex differences in math.

[1024] Dar-Nimrod I, Heine SJ. Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance. Science [Internet]. 2006 ;314(5798):435 - 435. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/314/5798/435

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-10/uobc-wmp101306.php

Memory problems at menopause

Findings from a study of 24 women approaching menopause have confirmed an earlier study involving over 800 women that found such women are no more likely than anyone else to suffer from memory retrieval problems. However, they did find that the women who complained more about problems with forgetfulness had a harder time learning or "encoding" new information, although they didn’t have actually have an impaired ability to learn new information. Although a larger study is needed to explore this link in more detail, the researchers suggest that stress and emotional upheaval may be responsible for attention failures that mean information isn’t encoded. The researchers did find that most of the women in their study had some sort of mood distress, including symptoms of depression or anxiety (note that this was not a random group, but women who were worried about their memory).

The study was reported at the annual meeting of the International Neuropsychological Society in Boston.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-02/uorm-mpa020206.php

Brain size does matter, but differently for men and women

A study involving the intelligence testing of 100 neurologically normal, terminally ill volunteers, who agreed that their brains be measured after death, found that a bigger brain size is correlated with higher intelligence in certain areas, but there are differences between women and men. Verbal intelligence was clearly correlated with brain size, accounting for 36% of the verbal IQ score, for women and right-handed men — but not for left-handed men. Spatial intelligence was also correlated with brain size in women, but much less strongly, while it was not related at all to brain size in men. It may be that the size or structure of specific brain regions is related to spatial intelligence in men. Brain size decreased with age in men over the age span of 25 to 80 years, suggesting that the well-documented decline in visuospatial intelligence with age is related, at least in right-handed men, to the decrease in cerebral volume with age. However age hardly affected brain size in women.

[1029] Witelson SF, Beresh H, Kigar DL. Intelligence and brain size in 100 postmortem brains: sex, lateralization and age factors. Brain: A Journal of Neurology [Internet]. 2006 ;129(Pt 2):386 - 398. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16339797

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/12/051223123116.htm

Effect of pregnancy on cognition depends on fetal gender

An intriguing new study may shed light on the conflicting results reported regarding the effect of pregnancy on cognition. The study, which tracked women throughout pregnancy through to postnatal resumption of menstruation, found that there was a significant effect of the sex of the baby on working memory and spatial ability. Women pregnant with boys consistently outperformed women pregnant with girls on these tests.

[1187] Vanston CM, Watson NV. Selective and persistent effect of foetal sex on cognition in pregnant women. Neuroreport [Internet]. 2005 ;16(7):779 - 782. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15858424

Cognitive effects of binge drinking worse for women

A new study looked at the cognitive effects of binge drinking, which apparently is on the rise in several countries, including Britain and the US. The study involved 100 healthy moderate-to-heavy social drinkers aged between 18 and 30. There were equal numbers of males and females. The study found that female binge drinkers performed worse on the working-memory and vigilance tasks than did the female non-binge drinkers.

[1311] Townshend JM, Duka T. Binge Drinking, Cognitive Performance and Mood in a Population of Young Social Drinkers. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research [Internet]. 2005 ;29(3):317 - 325. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/01.ALC.0000156453.05028.F5

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-03/ace-bdc030705.php

The effects of training and age on the spatial-memory gender gap

A study of 90 adult rhesus monkeys found young-adult males had better spatial memory than females, but peaked early. By old age, male and female monkeys had about the same performance. This finding is consistent with reports suggesting that men show greater age-related cognitive decline relative to women. A second study of 22 rhesus monkeys showed that in young adulthood, simple spatial-memory training did not help males but dramatically helped females, raising their performance to the level of young-adult males and wiping out the gender gap.

[1193] Lacreuse A, Kim CB, Rosene DL, Killiany RJ, Moss MB, Moore TL, Chennareddi L, Herndon JG. Sex, Age, and Training Modulate Spatial Memory in the Rhesus Monkey (Macaca mulatta). Behavioral Neuroscience [Internet]. 2005 ;119(1):118 - 126. Available from: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bne/119/1/118/

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-02/apa-ima022205.php
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-02/euhs-npm020905.php
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000560D5-7252-12B9-9A2C83414B7F0000&sc=I100322

Faster neuron transmission in young males

A study of 186 male and 201 female students (aged 18-25) has found that men's brain cells can transmit nerve impulses 4% faster than women's, probably due to the faster increase of white matter in the male brain during adolescence.

[1034] Reed ET, Vernon PA, Johnson AM. Confirmation of correlation between brain nerve conduction velocity and intelligence level in normal adults. Intelligence [Internet]. Submitted ;32(6):563 - 572. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6W4M-4D9DPX8-1/2/7a9bc91924a76dd2254ebec39f212e7b

IQ-related brain areas may differ in men and women

An imaging study of 48 men and women between 18 and 84 years old found that, although men and women performed equally on the IQ tests, the brain structures involved in intelligence appeared distinct. Compared with women, men had more than six times the amount of intelligence-related gray matter, while women had about nine times more white matter involved in intelligence than men did. Women also had a large proportion of their IQ-related brain matter (86% of white and 84% of gray) concentrated in the frontal lobes, while men had 90% of their IQ-related gray matter distributed equally between the frontal lobes and the parietal lobes, and 82% of their IQ-related white matter in the temporal lobes. The implications of all this are not clear, but it is worth noting that the volume of gray matter can increase with learning, and is thus a product of environment as well as genes. The findings also demonstrate that no single neuroanatomical structure determines general intelligence and that different types of brain designs are capable of producing equivalent intellectual performance.

[938] Haier RJ, Jung RE, Yeo RA, Head K, Alkire MT. The neuroanatomy of general intelligence: sex matters. NeuroImage [Internet]. 2005 ;25(1):320 - 327. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15734366

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-01/uoc--iim012005.php
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/01/050121100142.htm

Estrogen combines with stress to impair memory

A rat study has found that male and female rats performed equally well on a task involving the prefrontal cortex when under no stress, and when highly stressed, both made significant memory errors. But importantly, after exposure to a moderate level of stress, females were impaired, but males were not. When investigated further, it was found that female rats only showed this sensitivity when they were in a high-estrogen phase of their estrus cycle. The estrogen effect was confirmed in a further study using female rats who had had their ovaries removed, thus enabling the researchers to compare the effects of estrogen versus a placebo. These results suggest that high levels of estrogen can act to enhance the stress response, causing greater stress-related cognitive impairments, while providing reassurance that estrogen appears to have no effect on cognitive performance under non-stressful conditions.

[746] Shansky RM, Glavis-Bloom C, Lerman D, McRae P, Benson C, Miller K, Cosand L, Horvath TL, Arnsten AFT. Estrogen mediates sex differences in stress-induced prefrontal cortex dysfunction. Mol Psychiatry [Internet]. 2003 ;9(5):531 - 538. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/sj.mp.4001435

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-12/mp-epg112603.php

No support for idea that pregnancy affects memory and concentration

A study of pregnant women found many agreed with the popular view that pregnancy affects your memory. However, mental tests during pregnancy and after the birth found no difference between the performance of women who were pregnant and those who were not. It was possible that the affects are too mild to be picked up by the tests, or that the fatigue commonly experienced by women during pregnancy and early motherhood leads women to believe that their memory and concentration are affected.

The research was presented at the British Psychological Society annual conference in Bournemouth.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2847797.stm

Women better at recognizing female but not male faces

Women’s superiority in face recognition tasks appears to be due to their better recognition of female faces. There was no difference between men and women in the recognition of male faces.

[671] Lewin C, Herlitz A. Sex differences in face recognition--Women's faces make the difference. Brain and Cognition [Internet]. 2002 ;50(1):121 - 128. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WBY-46WVHDY-C/2/20e92b605a3fb8210460c4766ba66d35

Why women better remember emotional memories

A new brain imaging study reveals gender differences in the encoding of emotional memories. We have long known that women are better at remembering emotional memories, now we can see that the sexes tend to encode emotional experiences in different parts of the brain. In women, it seems that evaluation of emotional experience and encoding of the memory is much more tightly integrated.

[807] Canli T, Desmond JE, Zhao Z, Gabrieli JDE. Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [Internet]. 2002 ;99(16):10789 - 10794. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/99/16/10789.abstract

http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99992576

Gender differences in frontal lobe neuron density

A recent study has found that women have up to 15% more brain cell density in the frontal lobe, which controls so-called higher mental processes, such as judgement, personality, planning and working memory. However, as they get older, women appear to shed cells more rapidly from this area than men. By old age, the density is similar for both sexes. It is not yet clear what impact, if any, this difference has on performance.

Witelson, S.F., Kigar, D.L. & Stoner-Beresh, H.J. 2001. Sex difference in the numerical density of neurons in the pyramidal layers of human prefrontal cortex: a stereologic study. Paper presented to the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, US.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_1653000/1653687.stm

Gender differences in neural networks underlying beginning reading

A recent study uses EEG readings to investigate gender differences in the emerging connectivity of neural networks associated with phonological processing, verbal fluency, higher-level thinking and word retrieval (skills needed for beginning reading), in preschoolers. The study confirms different patterns of growth in building connections between boys and girls. These differences point to the different advantages each gender brings to learning to read. Boys favor vocabulary sub-skills needed for comprehension while girls favor fluency and phonic sub-skills needed for the mechanics of reading.

Hanlon, H. 2001. Gender Differences Observed in Preschoolers’ Emerging Neural Networks. Paper presented at Genomes and Hormones: An Integrative Approach to Gender Differences in Physiology, an American Physiological Society (APS) conference held October 17-20 in Pittsburgh.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-10/aps-gad101701.php

Boys' and girls' brains process faces differently

Previous research has suggested a right-hemisphere superiority in face processing, as well as adult male superiority at spatial and non-verbal skills (also associated with the right hemisphere of the brain). This study looked at face recognition and the ability to read facial expressions in young, pre-pubertal boys and girls. Boys and girls were equally good at recognizing faces and identifying expressions, but boys showed significantly greater activity in the right hemisphere, while the girls' brains were more active in the left hemisphere. It is speculated that boys tend to process faces at a global level (right hemisphere), while girls process faces at a more local level (left hemisphere). This may mean that females have an advantage in reading fine details of expression. More importantly, it may be that different treatments might be appropriate for males and females in the case of brain injury.

[2541] Everhart ED, Shucard JL, Quatrin T, Shucard DW. Sex-related differences in event-related potentials, face recognition, and facial affect processing in prepubertal children. Neuropsychology. 2001 ;15(3):329 - 341.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-07/aaft-pba062801.php
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_1425000/1425797.stm

More women than men do well on memory tests in old age

Researchers from Leiden University tested the mental functioning of 599 Dutch men and women aged 85 years. Good mental speed on word and number recognition tests was found in 33% of the women and 28% of the men. Forty one per cent of the women and 29% of the men had a good memory. This despite the fact that significantly more of the women had limited formal education compared to the men (not surprising given the time in which they grew up). The authors suggested that biological differences - such as the relative absence of cardiovascular disease in elderly women compared with men of the same age - could account for these sex differences in mental decline.

[2615] van Exel E, Gussekloo J, de Craen AJM, Bootsma-van der Wiel A, Houx P, Knook DL, Westendorp RGJ. Cognitive function in the oldest old: women perform better than men. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry [Internet]. 2001 ;71(1):29 - 32. Available from: http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/71/1/29.abstract

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-06/BSJ-Ewhb-1706101.php

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Myths about gender and math performance

January, 2012

Two new reviews debunk several theories for the reasons for gender gaps in math performance.

Is there, or is there not, a gender gap in mathematics performance? And if there is, is it biological or cultural?

Although the presence of a gender gap in the U.S. tends to be regarded as an obvious truth, evidence is rather more equivocal. One meta-analysis of studies published between 1990 and 2007, for example, found no gender differences in mean performance and nearly equal variability within each gender. Another meta-analysis, using 30 years of SAT and ACT scores, found a very large 13:1 ratio of middle school boys to girls at the highest levels of performance in the early 1980s, which declined to around 4:1 by 1991, where it has remained. A large longitudinal study found that males were doing better in math, across all socioeconomic classes, by the 3rd grade, with the ratio of boys to girls in the top 5% rising to 3:1 by 5th grade.

Regardless of the extent of any gender differences in the U.S., the more fundamental question is whether such differences are biological or cultural. The historical changes mentioned above certainly point to a large cultural component. Happily, because so many more countries now participate in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA), much better data is now available to answer this question. In 2007, for example, 4th graders from 38 countries and 8th graders from 52 countries participated in TIMSS. In 2009, 65 countries participated in PISA.

So what does all this new data reveal about the gender gap? Overall, there was no significant gender gap in the 2003 and 2007 TIMSS, with the exception of the 2007 8th graders, where girls outperformed boys.

There were, of course, significant gender gaps on a country basis. Researchers looked at several theories for what might underlie these.

Contradicting one theory, gender gaps did not correlate reliably with gender equity. In fact, both boys and girls tended to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality. The primary contributor to this appears to be women’s income and rates of participation in the work force. This is in keeping with the idea that maternal education and employment opportunities have benefits for their children’s learning regardless of gender.

The researchers also looked at the more specific hypothesis put forward by Steven Levitt, that gender inequity doesn’t hurt girls' math performance in Muslim countries, where most students attend single-sex schools. This theory was not borne out by the evidence. There was no consistent link between school type and math performance across countries.

However, math performance in the 29 wealthier countries could be predicted to a very high degree by three factors: economic participation and opportunity; GDP per capita; membership of one of three clusters — Middle Eastern (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia); East Asian (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan); rest (Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic, England, Canada, US, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Scotland, Cyprus, Italy, Malta, Israel, Spain, Lithuania, Malaysia, Slovenia, Dubai). The Middle Eastern cluster scored lowest (note the exception of Dubai), and the East Asian the highest. While there are many cultural factors differentiating these clusters, it’s interesting to note that countries’ average performance tended to be higher when students attribute less importance to mastering math.

The investigators also looked at the male variability hypothesis — the idea that males are more variable in their performance, and their predominance at the top is balanced by their predominance at the bottom. The study found however that greater male variation in math achievement varies widely across countries, and is not found at all in some countries.

In sum, the cross-country variability in performance in regard to gender indicates that the most likely cause of any differences lies in country-specific social factors. These could include perception of abilities as fixed vs malleable, attitude toward math, gender beliefs.

Stereotype threat

A popular theory of women’s underachievement in math concerns stereotype threat (first proposed by Spencer, Steele, and Quinn in a 1999 paper). I have reported on this on several occasions. However, a recent review of this research claims that many of the studies were flawed in their methodology and statistical analysis.

Of the 141 studies that cited the original article and related to mathematics, only 23 met the criteria needed (in the reviewers’ opinion) to replicate the original study:

  • Both genders tested
  • Math test used
  • Subjects recruited regardless of preexisting beliefs about gender stereotypes
  • Subjects randomly assigned to experimental conditions

Of these 23, three involved younger participants (< 18 years) and were excluded. Of the remaining 20 studies, only 11 (55%) replicated the original effect (a significant interaction between gender and stereotype threat, and women performing significantly worse in the threat condition than in the threat condition compared to men).

Moreover, half the studies confounded the results by statistically adjusting preexisting math scores. That is, the researchers tried to adjust for any preexisting differences in math performance by using a previous math assessment measure such as SAT score to ‘tweak’ the baseline score. This practice has been the subject of some debate, and the reviewers come out firmly against it, arguing that “an important assumption of a covariate analysis is that the groups do not differ on the covariate. But that group difference is exactly what stereotype threat theory tries to explain!” Note, too, that the original study didn’t make such an adjustment.

So what happens if we exclude those studies that confounded the results? That leaves ten studies, of which only three found an effect (and one of these found the effect only in a subset of the math test). In other words, overwhelmingly, it was the studies that adjusted the scores that found an effect (8/10), while those that didn’t adjust them didn’t find the effect (7/10).

The power of the adjustment in producing the effect was confirmed in a meta-analysis.

Now these researchers aren’t saying that stereotype threat doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t have an effect on women in this domain. Their point is that the size of the effect, and the evidence for the effect, has come to be regarded as greater and more robust than the research warrants.

At a practical level, this may have led to too much emphasis on tackling this problem at the expense of investigating other possible causes and designing other useful interventions.

Reference: 

Kane, J. M., & Mertz, J. E. (2012). Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance. Notices of the AMS, 59(1), 10-21.

[2698] Stoet G, Geary DC. Can stereotype threat explain the gender gap in mathematics performance and achievement?. Review of General Psychology;Review of General Psychology. 2012 :No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

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