Do men have better spatial intelligence? Nurture 1, nature 0

…would the difference persist in a world of educational and professional equality? Or—if women ruled?

Researchers administered four-piece jigsaw puzzles to nearly 1,300 members of two closely related tribes in Northeast India with little to no experience with such puzzles. The twist: One tribe, the Khasi, was matrilineal: Property descends through the youngest daughter and men are forbidden to own land. The other, the Karbi, is patrilineal.

Participants were offered about a quarter of a day’s wage if they could solve the puzzle quickly.

In the patrilineal tribe, men were 36% faster at solving the puzzle, on average (42.3 seconds versus 57.2 seconds). But there was no statistical difference in the matrilineal society. Men finished in 32.1 seconds, women in 35.4 seconds.

In the patrilineal society, men attended school longer than women; the researchers chalked up one-third of the gendered performance difference to that fact. But culture, they said, also appeared to play a strong role.

From the WSJ Ideas blog, which has become one of my new favorites to follow.

Side note 1: Jeannie took our niece to buy a toy. The boys aisle was full of mechanical building things and Lego and science stuff (plus lots of guns). The girls aisle, which was a blinding Barbie pink, had none of these things. At one point she spotted the word science on a box. Leaning in, the science of beauty and make-up. *Sigh*

Side note 2: I’ve used jigsaw puzzles on surveys in Liberia and Ethiopia and Uganda, mainly because I’m completed fascinated that even 6-piece puzzles seem to be very, very difficult for people who have never seen them before. Even highly educated surveyors and staff. So I have no idea what they measure, which is partly why I’ve kept using them. To be continued…

7 thoughts on “Do men have better spatial intelligence? Nurture 1, nature 0

  1. While I recognize the conclusion we *want* to come from this study, in one village men are better and in the other village (where women have the property rights) there is no difference, despite them having “more” rights than men. If one were to extrapolate from that without any bias (and ignoring any of a million other possibilities explaining this effect, or other rights that women are missing) I would think that our conclusion should actually be that men are better. My point is not so much that conclusion, but more that stating nurture wins is a bit of a jump. If the study found that men were better in both villages, I feel we would be much more hesitant to claim a natural victory.

  2. Oh my!

    Is this not another instance of “The statistical error that never seems to stop”?

    After all the interesting contrast here is not between men and women in either tribe but the difference in those contrasts across tribes. That is, we want to explain changes in gender difference related to different nurtures.

    Moreover, this says nothing about nature since, presumably, genetic differences across genders are the same across tribes. To identify the effect of nature one would need to operate on a man, or woman, to change his genes to the opposite sex holding everything else constant.

    What we can conclude is that, defining patrilineal as control, there is a significant difference among genders in control, and no significant difference among genders in treatment.

    Assuming no fixed effects, we might then test the difference in differences, but I guess that will be insignificant.

    And if there are fixed effects by tribe, then we don’t know whether it is some latent heterogeneity across tribes that is both affecting differences and the choice btw patrilineal and matrilineal.

  3. Actually, under any plausible model of spatial intelligence development that depends on the observed factors, men are have an inborn advantage: either they “overcome” the disadvantage of being the unpropertied sex in the matrilineal society, or they gain more from favoritism.

    If, on the other hand, the results had been mirror-imaged for the matrilineal society – as I assumed they would have been from the headline – then this reasoning would go through.

  4. Why would spatial reasoning be biased towards one gender? Both sexes would need to be aware of their spatial environment in order to survive and prosper given their respective hunter/gatherer roles. A better test would be to differentiate between hunting/fighting spatial-reasoning skills and finding/retrieving spatial skills to see if there is a sex bias towards one type of spatial reasoning or another.

  5. When my daughter was about four years old, I bought her an electric train set, of a size suitable for her fingers. She was kinda’ interested. Whenever someone came along giving her a soft toy, the train was immediately forgotten!

    Was I worried? No.

  6. One concern about this research program is that is is part of a series of comparisons that the authors are making, and one wonders whether significance levels generally are being adjusted for “we measured 57 outcomes, and here is the comparison between one of them, and the other 56 we’ll present later”. Presumably they are choosing the most large and splashy differences now, and will never get around to presenting the outcomes where there were no differences.

  7. To accurately conduct any of the above-referenced studies it would be necessary to correlate the average intelligence of the male versus female participants. Absent such a crucial ‘control,’ the results are necessarily suspect.