Yes, men are better than women at spatial awareness. There, I said it. As a result, men tend to be better navigators. But why?
For decades, psychologists have looked for differences in the way male and female brains work. And genuine differences have been hard to find. But when it comes to tests of spatial awareness, men do significantly outperform women. Obviously there are plenty of individual women who perform better on these tests than men, but on average, men are statistically more accurate than women.
Rotate things… in your mind
Put simply, spatial awareness is the ability to recognise and visualise spatial patterns and manipulate them in your mind. A classic test of spatial awareness is showing people an object and asking them to visualise what it would look like when rotated 180°. Men are generally quicker to perform this mental rotation. This male advantage is true across cultures, in 4-year olds and even babies. And this spatial ability is strongly related to navigation skills.
At the same time, women are better at what’s called object location memory – recalling the specific location of an individual object.
There are two main arguments for these gender differences: evolution and hormones.
Evolution: hunters and gatherers
Researchers have explained why men have better spatial skills by looking at the different roles men and women have played during our evolutionary history. In human societies during the Pleistocene, men ranged far and wide while hunting whereas women were responsible for gathering food closer to home.
It was advantageous for men to be good at mentally picturing a landscape from different perspectives so they didn’t get lost. At the same time, it was useful for women to be able to locate particular plants year after year during their growing seasons.
There is modern research to back these arguments. For example, when you ask men and women how they navigate to new places, men tend to fall back on their innate sense of direction, whereas women often rely on maps or other instructions. Men maintain a sense of their own position relative to cues in the environment around them. Research shows that although men are quicker to find new places, women are better at finding them again at a later time.
But one of the problems with this explanation is that the tendency for males to be better at spatial tasks is found in a variety of animal species. And although it’s common across a variety of animals for males to travel further in their day-to-day lives than females, that’s not always the case.
If the tendency for males to explore more widely than females was enough to explain the differences in spatial skills, then males of species that range the widest should have the best spatial skills. In species where males and females travel about the same distances, neither sex should have an advantage in spatial tasks.
But that’s not what we see. Research published in 2012 looking at 11 species of animal, including rats, humans, horses and cuttlefish found no relationship between the distances covered by males (compared to females) and their spatial skills. So what else could explain the male navigational advantage?
Hormones: perhaps testosterone is the answer?
We’ve known for a century that in rats, males are better than females at finding their way through mazes. Interestingly, male rats aren’t very good at navigating mazes if they’ve been castrated. But if you give them a dose of testosterone, the rats regain their competitive edge.
The researchers who looked at horses and cuttlefish propose that the superior navigational ability of males is simply a “side effect” of males having more testosterone. They argue that the evolution argument doesn’t stack up because women would have inherited the same navigational skills as men unless it were somehow bad for them. And it’s hard to imagine why good navigational skills would be a bad thing for women.
So if we see something that’s advantageous for one sex, the other sex will get it because it’s inheriting the same genes – unless it’s bad for that sex. Psychology Professor Justin Rhodes, University of Illinois
Does it all come back to sex?
The most recent addition to this debate comes from studying two tribes living in mountainous deserts of north-west Namibia, the Twe (pronounced tway) and Tjimba (pronounced chim-bah). Men in these tribes travel widely, at least partly as a way of finding new sexual partners (affairs outside marriage are accepted in this culture).
Men in these tribes who did the best on a variety of spatial tests traveled considerably further than other men. Not only that, but these men also fathered more children than other men in the tribes. Good navigators having more kids provides nice support for the evolutionary argument.
Whatever the reason, I’m going to stop getting frustrated by the fact my husband is a much better navigator than me. It’s not my fault!