Wednesday 12 November 2014

Advice to men caught unawares

Men are often startled when, without any warning, their dearly beloved suddenly asks “What are you thinking about right now?”

Naturally, the last thing a man should give is a truthful answer. Endless trouble will ensue if the man innocently replies: “Having sex with your best friend”. Therefore, in the unaccustomed role of agony uncle, I would suggest that men prepare a response in advance, and trot it out when required.

The best reply is one which is essentially male, but which avoids revealing any tendency towards mindless impersonal sex with random women chosen only for their physical characteristics. Are there any cognitive tasks in which men have a clear advantage over women? I will leave aside, for another time, the argument that men have a clear advantage over women on all mental tasks, amounting to about 4 IQ points. Also, I will not repeat here the well-established finding that women’s variance in intelligence is less than that of men, so that as tasks get harder proportionately more men can be found at higher levels of intellect (and the same is true at very low levels of intellect as well). The two links shown below cover that ground.

However, what we need is a supremely male task, with which to blunt the force of the unsettling female enquiry about male mental processes. The text books generally agree that mental rotation (ability to imagine what a complex figure would look like in another orientation) is one in which males excel. For example, Halpern, Beninger and Straight (Sex differences in intelligence, Chapter 13, The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence, Eds Sternberg and Kaufman, 2011) say: A male advantage in mental rotation is found as early as 3 to 5 months of age (Moore and Johnson 2008; Quinn and Liben 2008). Male performance on mental rotation exceeds that of females across all age ranges, effect sizes ranging from d=0.52 to d=1.49, and increase slightly across the life span. These are very big differences.

The Moore and Johnson paper can be accessed here:

They say: To demonstrate mental rotation in human infants, we habituated 5-month-old infants to an object revolving through a 240° angle. In successive test trials, infants saw the habituation object or its mirror image revolving through a previously unseen 120° angle. Only the male infants appeared to recognize the familiar object from the new perspective, a feat requiring mental rotation. These data provide evidence for a sex difference in mental rotation of an object through three-dimensional space, consistently seen in adult populations.

Results are on a mere 2o boys and 20 girls, but seem clear cut.



The authors are circumspect as to what is causing the sex difference, and they cover all the options.

By 3 months after birth, male and female brains differ structurally (de Lacoste, Horvath, & Woodward, 1991) and functionally (Shucard, Shucard, Cummins, & Campos, 1981), and male and female infants have already experienced a social world that treats them differently (Donovan, Taylor, & Leavitt, 2007; Stern & Karraker, 1989).

I think that the fact that this male skill is evident by 6 months of age is significant. In my view that is long before it could have been shaped up by the usual suspects: a culture which imposes sex differences, families which encourage sex-appropriate forms of play, etc. It has all the appearance of a real sex difference in mental abilities.

So, I can now suggest a reply to sudden enquiries about male thoughts:

“I was mentally rotating three-dimensional arrays”.

If she expresses surprise, reply that her response reveals her incomprehension of the workings of the male mind.

Best of luck.


  1. “I was mentally rotating 3D arrays (of your best friend & I)"

    if one had enough data, & if IQ tests didn't routinely throw out items biased against females (e.g., on vocab tests, males tend to do slightly higher on action-oriented verbs at most ages), the few point mean difference would be more pronounced. then, with enough data, it would be an easy parlor trick to show "IQ tests biased against females" IF you use the IQ to predict college grades/graduation (b/c females score lower on the IQ test, but higher on the criterion variable, GPA. i.e., the IQ test thereby underpredicts female performance on that "objective" criterion - making it "biased" against females). making it an example of using politically incorrect data to come up with a result/headline which the PC media/cathedral are happy with :) statistical parlor tricks can lead to tenure. enduring the PC academic setting takes a strong stomach (& much mental rotation of 3D arrays).

    1. Elementary cognitive tasks do not suffer from the "tossing out of sex-discriminating items" issue. They show somewhat higher "IQ point" differences-- around 4 to 6 points.

    2. thanks for the link!

    3. I wonder if You would have replicate the same results with more representative group.

  2. an intriguing study, but I do not put much stock in infant looking time research. Small Ns are the norm (as here), along with many experimenter degrees of freedom, mountains of discarded data from fussy, uncooperative babies (how do these babies differ from the cooperative ones?), and a strong preference amongst journals for sexy, counter-intuitive findings (infants can add and subtract! And they have theory of mind!). It all adds up to a merry festival of p-hacking galore (either conscious or subconscious) - and I also hear nasty whispers of perfect experiments with results that seem too good to be true - and of course cannot be replicated (that, is fraud).

    Maybe best to stick to the old adage - never work with children or animals. Of course, animals should be more straightforward - but then look at what happened to Marc Hauser...

    This blog explores some of the issues with this line of research in more detail;

    1. Thanks for the interesting link. The point that convinced me most is that if a skill is revealed in babies it probably ought to be found in young children (not must). I intended to say, and then dropped it, that 4 babies were dropped for fussiness and one for tiredness.

  3. some of the best data are held in abeyance & analyzed for the public in mainly non-upsetting ways: military test scores/outcomes, & IQ/achievement test publishing company standardization data, no longer routinely released to the public b/c certain uncomfortable yet consistent patterns might affect sales. these are wonderful carefully collected large data sets, but sadly, only allowed to be used for certain things...

    1. Yes, same evasive approach in the UK. The attitude is "Why would you be interested in that? Explain yourself."