Sex Differences in Mental Rotation Tasks: Not Just in the Mental Rotation Process!

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The paper-and-pencil Mental Rotation Test (Vandenberg & Kuse, 1978) consistently produces large sex differences favoring men (Voyer, Voyer, & Bryden, 1995). In this task, participants select 2 of 4 answer choices that are rotations of a probe stimulus. Incorrect choices (i.e., foils) are either mirror reflections of the probe or structurally different. In contrast, in the mental rotation experimental task (Shepard & Metzler, 1971) participants judge whether 2 stimuli are the same but rotated or different by mirror reflection. The goal of the present research was to examine sources of sex differences in mental rotation, including the ability to capitalize on the availability of structure foils. In 2 experiments, both men and women had greater accuracy and faster reaction times (RTs) for structurally different compared with mirror foils in different versions of the Vandenberg and Kuse Mental Rotation Test (Experiment 1) and the Shepard and Metzler experimental task (Experiment 2). A significant male advantage in accuracy but not response time was found for both trial types. The male advantage was evident when all foils were structure foils so that mental rotation was not necessary (Experiment 3); however, when all foils were structure foils and participants were instructed to look for structure foils a significant sex difference was no longer evident (Experiment 4). Results suggest that the mental rotation process is not the only source of the sex difference in mental rotation tasks. Alternative strategy use is another source of sex differences in these tasks.

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