Arguing with colleagues about common gender beliefs, someone said that women can multi-task better but men can mentally rotate images better. I sent them the following in response to the first statement: Do women statistically have better multitasking ability than men?

And I suggested the second statement was probably equally false.

The response I received contained the following link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sex/articles/spatial_tests.shtml

According to this......

Studies show that, on average, men are better than women at mentally rotating pictures of three dimensional objects (the 3D shapes task) or judging the slope of a line (the angles task).

However these "studies" are not referenced just mentioned.

Is there truth behind this?

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    I have heard similar claims about evolution causing men to have better abstract spacial abilities and women to have better language and communication abilities. (No references, just additional, related fodder.) – oosterwal Sep 21 '11 at 21:35
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    I'm certain that men can generally rotate women (or at least pictures of women) better than women can simply because we tend to be built with more physical strength. ;-P – Randolf Richardson Sep 21 '11 at 21:39
  • @RandolfRichardson: I'm around the same weight as my partner (120 lb), and she can pick me up just as easily as I her, barring any awkwardness with our head of height difference. – Jon Purdy Sep 22 '11 at 2:10
  • Averages be damned, the wife is a better trunk/truck/attic packer than me, my brother, my father (mechanical engineer), or my grandfather (aviation mechanic). – dmckee Sep 22 '11 at 3:22
  • Wouldn't this be more of a psychology than physiology question? – dtanders Sep 22 '11 at 14:02

In The Evolution of Sex Difference in Language, Sexuality, and Visual-Spatial Skills (PDF), R. Joseph, Ph.D. explores the differences between males and females in a variety of primates, with emphasis on humans. Some selected quotes from the paper as it appeared in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2000 are provided that indicate that females have better language skills than males and males tend to have better visual-spatial skills than females. This difference is also seen in nonhuman primates as well as other animals but appears to be more pronounced in humans.

For example, female primates produce more social and emotional vocalizations and engage in more tool use and gathering activities, whereas males tend to hunt and kill. Similar labor divisions are evident over the course of human evolution. “Woman’s work” such as child rearing, gathering, and domestic tool construction and manipulation contributed to the functional evolution of Broca’s speech area and the angular gyrus—which injects temporal sequences and complex concepts into the stream of language and thought. These activities gave rise, therefore, to a female superiority in grammatical (temporal sequential) vocabulary-rich language. Hunting as a way of life does not require speech but requires excellent visual–spatial skills and, thus, contributed to a male visual–spatial superiority and sex difference in the brain.


...Conversely, it is well established that human males excel over females across a variety of visual–spatial problem-solving and perceptual tasks. Visual–spatial superiorities, however, are also demonstrated by other species including male rats.

It is apparent that these same cross-species sex differences have become more pronounced in humans. However, rather than purely a product of societal, political, or parental pressures, the amplification of these sex differences, like other cognitive capabilities such as math, are also neurologically based and a product of our evolutionary heritage.


Hence, given 500,000 years of multigenerational male experience in hunting, which usually required days or even weeks of wandering hundreds of miles from the home base, present-day males therefore demonstrate superior visual–spatial skills including superior maze learning, tracking, aiming, and related nonverbal abilities, compared to females. This includes a male superiority in the recall of geometric shapes, detecting figures that are hidden and embedded within a complex array, constructing three-dimensional figures from two-dimensional patterns, visually rotating and detecting the number of objects in a three-dimensional array, and playing and winning at chess (which requires superior spatial abilities).

Not quoted, but presented in the paper, is a discussion on the physical differences in male and female brains. Language ability in male brains appears to be restricted mostly to the left hemisphere but is more developed in the right hemisphere in female brains. The author seems to imply that this allows males to use more of the right hemisphere for the visual-spatial skills that are required for hunting.

Bottom-line: Yes, men tend to have better visual-spatial skills than women.

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    A source that says simple "it is well established that" isn't much of a source. – Ben Voigt Sep 22 '11 at 5:44
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    @Ben Voigt: ...unless it also has credible references to show that it really is well established; oosterwal's answer excluded some data: Conversely, it is well established that human males excel over females across a variety of visual–spatial problem-solving and perceptual tasks (Broverman et al., 1968; Harris, 1978; Joseph, 1993; Kimura, 1993; Linn and Petersen, 1985; Thomas et al., 1973). Visual–spatial superiorities, however, are also demonstrated by other species including male rats (Dawson et al., 1975; Joseph, 1979; Joseph and Gallagher, 1980; Joseph et al., 1978). – Randolf Richardson Sep 22 '11 at 6:28
  • @Ben Voight, I felt the quotes were getting a bit long and difficult to read with the infix references so I left them out. I figured if anyone had questions about the quotes they could open up the linked document and search for the offending bits to get more detail. Randolf Richardson's comment shows what one of the quoted sections looked like in the original document. – oosterwal Sep 22 '11 at 13:18
  • @oosterwal: Based on the text of the question, it definitely concerns a list of studies specifically (it's decrying information he already found which summarized without citing sources, an answer which does the same doesn't improve on that). – Ben Voigt Sep 22 '11 at 14:33

They are not better at it, but they use different parts of the brain to do it:

Our behavioural results did not confirm a better performance of males in mental rotation and mathematics. Moreover, the accuracy levels were equal for all conditions between women and men, however, the reaction times of men were faster in the arithmetic tasks. Women and men seem to use an identical activation network in the magnitude comparison task as revealed by fMRI. Our results support the assumption of a central semantic representation of numerical quantity that relies on a common bilateral parietal (intraparietal sulcus) and right-hemispheric prefrontal network as shown by various studies (Chochon, Cohen, van de Moortele, & Dehaene, 1999; Pinel, Dehaene, Riviere, & LeBihan, 2001; Rickard et al., 2000).

In contrast to magnitude comparison, those tasks that demand more complex problem solving strategies (mental rotation, approximate and exact calculation) revealed gender differences in brain activation.


Gender differences in brain activation patterns during mental rotation and number related cognitive tasks K KUCIAN, T LOENNEKER, T DIETRICH… - Psychology Science, 2005

  • I believe this is the entire document (PDF) right here: pabst-publishers.de/psychology-science/1-2005/… (Gender differences in brain activation patterns during mental rotation and number related cognitive tasks) – Randolf Richardson Sep 22 '11 at 0:21
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    @Lagerbaer: The linked article claims that men do perform better than women in mental rotation tasks: "Based on behavioural responses (reaction time and accuracy) several studies have found males to perform better than females in mental rotation tasks (Crucian & Berenbaum, 1998; Halpern, 2000; Linn & Petersen, 1985; Roberts & Bell, 2000)." Also, "Preferred processing strategies of women seem equally effective in visuospatial and arithmetical tasks if no emphasis is placed on speed (Goldstein et al., 1990)." – oosterwal Sep 22 '11 at 3:07
  • "Our results did not confirm a better performance of males in mental rotation". The linked article claims that OTHER studies claim males to perform better. – Lagerbaer Sep 22 '11 at 23:45

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