Friday, July 20, 2012

Why are there sex differences in general knowledge?

A number of research studies have found that on average males score higher than females on tests of general knowledge (Lynn & Irwing, 2002; Lynn, Irwing, & Cammock, 2002). The reasons for this are not yet clear. Differences in verbal ability or abstract reasoning have been ruled out as explanations (Lynn & Irwing, 2002). Some researchers have argued that differences are most likely due to men and women having different interests. One study for example found that out of 19 domains of knowledge tested, males scored significantly higher on 12 domains, whereas women scored higher on two domains, medicine and cookery. Women are generally more interested in nurturing roles than men, so it makes sense that they would be more knowledgeable in these two areas. What is more puzzling though is that in other domains considered stereotypically feminine, there were either no gender differences (fashion and art), or men actually scored higher (literature). Previous research has found that women do tend to express more interest in artistic activities (Su, Rounds, & Armstrong, 2009) yet they did not have more knowledge of art than men. Males scored higher on domains related to current affairs, sports and games, and general science and biology. 

One explanation proposed for the male advantage in these domains, derived from evolutionary psychology, is that males are “biologically programmed” to be more concerned with competition for status and power, and these are central to such areas as current affairs (which includes politics and finance) and in sport and games. This seems all very well for those particular domains, especially politics, in which status and power concerns are very salient. However, “current affairs” in this study also encompassed the domains of history, geography, and exploration and discovery, and it is less clear how competition for status and power would lead to greater knowledge of these areas. Similarly, it is much less clear if this theory can explain why males would have greater knowledge of general science and biology or even the supposedly ‘feminine’ domain of literature. The authors admitted that gender differences in particular interests might be culturally determined but this still begs the question of why these differences occur, particularly in modern western societies where gender equality is increasingly emphasised.

Previous research has found that from an early age boys tend to show more interest in things, whereas girls show a greater interest in people (Su, et al., 2009). SimonBaron-Cohen (2003) has proposed that due to differences in the organisation of the brain, males have a bias towards “systematising”, that is, understanding the principles behind how things work, whereas females have a bias towards “empathising”, that is, understanding how people think and feel in particular social situations. This model might help explain why males tend to acquire greater factual knowledge than females. Males might have a greater motivation to gain factual knowledge due to a desire to understand how things in the world operate. Females might find this less appealing as they may be more motivated to learn about and understand people in their lives. As far as I know, there has not been any research examining whether gender differences in general knowledge are related to variation in systematising versus empathising.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

           This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts discussing intelligence related topics
The Knowledgeable Personality - How general knowledge is related to Big Five personality traits 
Cold Winters and the Evolution of Intelligence: A critique of Richard Lynn’s Theory

The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences – a critique of Howard Gardner’s theory

Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The essential difference: men, women and the extreme
male brain. London: Penguin.
Lynn, R., & Irwing, P. (2002). Sex differences in general knowledge, semantic memory and reasoning ability British Journal of Psychology, 93 (4), 545-556 DOI: 10.1348/000712602761381394
Lynn, R., Irwing, P., & Cammock, T. (2002). Sex differences in general knowledge Intelligence, 30 (1), 27-39 DOI: 10.1016/S0160-2896(01)00064-2
Su, R., Rounds, J., & Armstrong, P. I. (2009). Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests. Psychological Bulletin, 135(6), 859–884. doi: 10.1037/a0017364

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