Sunday, September 16, 2007

Nurture wins again

I've always hated it when people, pretending to be relying upon "evolutionary science," start hypothesizing that the "differences" they've supposedly noticed (or made up, looked for, etc.) between men and women are innate. Hunters and gatherers (or gatherers and hunters, if you're into feminist revisions) seem to be the reason for *everything*, from how women and men carry books, to spatial/mathematical reasoning, to dating trends. Whenever I hear someone start with "caveman days" stories, I translate it into "I like to tell myself this story about human history for entirely personal and arbitrary reasons." It's nice to see my own take reinforced by a study... I just stumbled across this article (via Feministe) at Group News from

Writing in Psychological Science, a team led by Ian Spence of the University of Toronto describes a test performed on people's ability to spot unusual objects that appear in their field of vision. Success at spatial tasks like this often differs between the sexes (men are better at remembering and locating general landmarks; women are better at remembering and locating food), so the researchers were not surprised to discover a discrepancy between the two. The test asked people to identify an “odd man out” object in a briefly displayed field of two dozen otherwise identical objects. Men had a 68% success rate. Women had a 55% success rate.

Had they left it at that, Dr Spence and his colleagues might have concluded that they had uncovered yet another evolved difference between the sexes, come up with a “Just So” story to explain it in terms of division of labour on the African savannah, and moved on. However, they did not leave it at that. Instead, they asked some of their volunteers to spend ten hours playing an action-packed, shoot-'em-up video game, called “Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault”. As a control, other volunteers were asked to play a decidedly non-action-packed puzzle game, called “Ballance”, for a similar time. Both sets were then asked to do the odd-man-out test again.

Among the Ballancers, there was no change in the ability to pick out the unusual. Among those who had played “Medal of Honour”, both sexes improved their performances.

That is not surprising, given the different natures of the games. However, the improvement in the women was greater than the improvement in the men—so much so that there was no longer a significant difference between the two. Moreover, that absence of difference was long-lived. When the volunteers were tested again after five months, both the improvement and the lack of difference between the sexes remained. Though it is too early to be sure, it looks likely that the change in spatial acuity—and the abolition of any sex difference in that acuity—induced by playing “Medal of Honour” is permanent.

Guess I should take up playing Doom again.

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