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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

You've heard the generalizations: Boys are better at math than girls. Girls have better verbal skills. Boys outperform girls in spatial tasks, while girls get better grades in school. Are these claims true? And if they are, is it nature or nurture at work? In January, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested that biological differences between the sexes might explain why women lag behind men in such fields in science and math.

We're broadcasting today from the American Psychological Association's Science Leadership Conference in Washington, and we'll be talking about these gender differences and cognitive abilities and learning. For example, what does science have to say about the differences in male and female brains when it comes to spatial ability or verbal skills or academic achievement? Does biology tell the whole story or are other factors at play? How do these differences or perceptions of differences translate into academic achievement and career success?

If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call. Our number, as always, is 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. And if you're here in the audience, I welcome you to step up to the microphones on the aisles and stand there, wait for me to ask you a question or have you ask us a question.

In our audience today are high school students from two schools in Washington, the Washington, DC, area: Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, and Georgetown Prepatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland. We'll hope the students stand up there and give us some questions, if they have a mind to.

Let me introduce my guests. Nora Newcombe is a professor of psychology and a James H. Glackin Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. NORA NEWCOMBE (Temple University): Nice to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Diane Halpern was president of the American Psychological Association in 2004. She's a professor of psychology and chair of the department and director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family & Children at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. DIANE HALPERN (Berger Institute for Work, Family, & Children; Claremont McKenna College): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Lynn Liben is a distinguished professor of psychology at Penn State University in University Park.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. LYNN LIBEN (Penn State University): Thank you.

FLATOW: And Janet Hyde is the Helen Thompson Woolley Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she joins us today from the studios of WHA in Madison.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. JANET HYDE (University of Wisconsin): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Let me ask you, Dr. Halpern, first. Is there evidence of gender differences in cognitive traits, and if there are, which ones?

Dr. HALPERN: Yes, there is evidence of gender differences, and let me start out first with some caveats. An article I wrote a number of years ago titled What You See Depends on Where You Look, and that is as true today as it was when I wrote it. And that is that there's lots of difference kinds of tests and different stages in the life span, and depending on which tests you're giving, what age you're giving it to, you can find evidence for differences, evidence for no differences. So it really depends who you're testing and that if we're looking for similarities, boys and girls are both--men and women are both similar and different. So, yes, there's evidence for similarities and there's evidence also for differences. So I want to say that, yes, there's evidence for both.

FLATOW: With a big caveat.

Dr. HALPERN: Yeah, very big, and on average...

FLATOW: Has a major caveat.

Dr. HALPERN: Yes, I really want to start out--because I don't want to start out just with differences.

FLATOW: OK.

Dr. HALPERN: I want to start out saying that--you know, I'll be very careful in how I present this to the public and don't want to just start out talking, you know, saying that there are differences.

FLATOW: OK.

Dr. HALPERN: Because I'm very careful in how I present this.

FLATOW: OK.

Dr. HALPERN: But, yes, there is evidence for some differences, because people want to get to the differences first, of course.

FLATOW: The people love differences.

Dr. HALPERN: OK, and similarities, too.

FLATOW: OK.

Dr. HALPERN: OK.

FLATOW: OK. OK.

Dr. HALPERN: The differences are often found on some tests of memory, episodic memory. Some of the differences favor girls and females. Some of the differences favor males and boys and men. So there's no evidence for a smarter sex, but there is some evidence for differences. So the ones that tend to favor females, some very large differences favoring females in writing, for example. The writing differences, you can find the evidence. The Department of Education talks about it. You find the evidence in some meta-analyses that were published in Science. And this--often they get missed because we don't often measure writing all that closely.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HALPERN: But that's one of the large differences that we have favoring females, and I can give some more--talk about that a little bit more. We find some of the evidence on favoring females on tasks that involve--some of the memory tasks. A lot of these involve laboratory tasks, episodic memory kinds of tasks. But some of the kinds of memory tasks that come up--we have a laboratory involving--generating words that start with a particular letter, those sorts of things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HALPERN: Retrieving things from memory, those sorts of tasks. Other kinds of tasks that might favor--that often tend to favor girls would be some fine motor kinds of tasks, speech articulation kinds of tasks, less stuttering stuttering in girls, those sorts of things.

Some of the tasks that--and these are on average, of course. These are overlapping curves, and I'm always careful to mention that. Some of the tasks that tend to favor males on average are ones that involve spatial kinds of imagery and rotating things, imagining how something might look if you rotated in space.

FLATOW: Is that that SAT type of thing? You rotate those little objects...

Dr. HALPERN: Sometimes it's on the SAT. Sometimes it's when you take the box home from the store and you have to put the furniture together. That might be something that people at home are more familiar with.

FLATOW: This time of the year, that's very important.

Dr. HALPERN: That's very important.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HALPERN: But that's on average as the kind of thing that, on average--mental rotation is what we call it in psychology, in the laboratory. That's often--find that to be a large kind of an effect.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HALPERN: We often find another kind of task and have these--now let me get out my--oh, that we find that tends to be tasks that--where males do--very large--has to do with ones that involve novel kinds of fluid reasoning tasks, where the tasks tend to be very different than the kinds often that are learned in class.

FLATOW: Such as?

Dr. HALPERN: Such as the kinds of tasks that--we find that the larger differences occur on the kinds of tests that are standardized or that don't match a curriculum.

FLATOW: But what is a fluid ta--I mean, what does that mean?

Dr. HALPERN: A fluid task would be one that you haven't learned it in school. So, for example, you find that girls get better grades in school.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HALPERN: You find that girls, in fact, get higher grades in almost all the tests that are given in school. They're going to college at much higher rates.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HALPERN: They've been going to college at higher rates since 1982 and get better grades in school, but they're getting on average lower test scores on tests like the SATs and the GREs. And when we look at why we have those disparities, we look at what's different, and what's different are those tests that are not matched to curricula. And those tests that are not matched to curricula often call for very novel kinds of problem-solving. If we look at what's different on those problems, and sometimes they call for a different kind of solution than on what was called for in something that was learned in class. And we call those a little bit more fluid and they're not exactly matched, and I tend to think that those call for visuospatial kinds of solutions and that's what we think is happening there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HALPERN: So not so much novel so much as it's probably visuospatial is what's going on there.

FLATOW: What about the math and science part?

Dr. HALPERN: The math and science--the science I--they also find a larger difference on some of the science achievement tests, and that's where you find the larger differences, the ones that are given internationally is I have--we have international scores. We find these also true internationally.

FLATOW: These are boys scoring higher?

Dr. HALPERN: Yes, and on the international science tests. And we find the girls scoring much higher on the international reading literacy tests. So the data also hold up internationally. You find--so that's--so you'll find this also true with the international tests pretty much true.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HALPERN: You also find more variability in the male scores, which means that you have more males on the lower end, so you have more males on the mentally deficient end. You have many more males who are dyslexic, many more males who are retarded, but you also have many more males at the high-achieving end on some of these--what we call tests that are not tied to curricula. So you find some of those differences also.

FLATOW: Diane Halpern, let's--you've gone through a lot of different...

Dr. HALPERN: Yes, I have.

FLATOW: Anything that has to do with--one test that I was reading about that you didn't touch on...

Dr. HALPERN: Sure.

FLATOW: ...just because I'm sure you haven't gotten to it yet, is some...

Dr. HALPERN: I could keep going for days.

FLATOW: I know you could. I know. Well, let's just touch on one more, and that is that's this velocity judgment...

Dr. HALPERN: Oh, yes.

FLATOW: ...moving objects test.

Dr. HALPERN: Yes. That has to do with a speeded test. It's not as well studied as some of the others because it involves--if you have something moving, for example, across a computer screen and you have to make a time of arrival judgment...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HALPERN: ...that also seem--and you have, like say, when will it hit a particular--a moving object. That is also one that seems to have a larger effect size for males, but again--but it's not--has been studied as well as some of the others, so that's one I decided to leave out in a quicker summary.

FLATOW: OK. That's--we'll get back to it. Lynn Liben, tell me about the--we only have a couple minutes till the break, about the water level task. What is the water level task?

Dr. LIBEN: Certainly. Well, actually, the water level task was invented by Piaget and Inhelder and it was developed for children, the idea being that children have to gradually develop spatial concepts, including a system for representing their worlds with horizontal and vertical axes. And so they use this test as a way of getting at invariant horizontality, whether you can see that there are verticals and horizontals in the real world. When Piaget developed this task, it was with the expectation that nine- and 10-year-olds would basically have it, no problem. And it turns out that lots of college students, in fact, do very badly on this test.

FLATOW: What is the test?

Dr. LIBEN: Well, what you do is you take a glass and you ask someone, `Supposing this were about half full with water, where would the water line be?' And when the glass is upright, there's no problem. Children can do it. Adults can do it. And then you tip the empty glass and say, `OK, now that it's tilted...'

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LIBEN: `...where would the water be?' And the right answer, for those people listening that don't know, is that the water stays horizontal no matter what position the glass is in. And the idea is that it's difficult, because the sides are providing conflicting frames. And so there's also a verticality test.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LIBEN: Same idea.

FLATOW: I guess if you ask someone if it's half-full or half-empty, that's another whole...

Dr. LIBEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...subject to get into. Is that...

Dr. LIBEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Well, hang on...

Dr. LIBEN: OK.

FLATOW: ...because we have to take a short break. We'll come back and talk lots more about the tests between males and females and what they show, so stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the differences--gender differences in cognitive abilities with my guests, Nora Newcombe, Diane Halpern, Lynn Liben and Janet Hyde, here at the American Psychological Association meeting in Washington. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.

Let's talk a little bit more about spatial skills, Dr. Newcombe. Is it true for boys and girls--what do we know about spatial skills differences?

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, aside from the water level test, which is sort of a spatial test, as--the other test, which Diane Halpern mentioned, is mental rotation, which is this ability to, you know, think, what would your alarm clock look like from the other side or could I really fit this piece of furniture into my station wagon? This kind of thing.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: And men are better at that than women. In most people's minds, the question is why, and that gets us to nature/nurture, although I have argued and will continue to maintain that that's probably not the right question, but I know you're going to talk about it, so...

FLATOW: Well, tell me why isn't it the right question.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, the reason it's not the right question is not that it's uninteresting, because I think it's really fascinating, but because for most people, it has an implication that I think is false, which is that if it's biology, there's nothing we can do about it, and if it's environment, then we can do lots about it. And that just doesn't follow. I mean, it's biological that our hair gets gray, but we still dye it, and lots of things happen in the environment, like, you know, people grow up in poverty and we so far have been unable to do anything about that. So there just isn't the correlation that people think there is.

FLATOW: Just a wild stab at something here that, you know, maybe it's the questions we ask that are wrong.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Yeah.

FLATOW: I mean, it could be--I mean, even in the testing, the kinds of tests we give...

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Oh.

FLATOW: ...I mean, what we decide is important, like shoving that, you know, refrigerator into the station wagon as a spatial test--maybe that's the wrong question that we're asking--the kind of skill that you need in life.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, I think it's a pretty important skill if you want to move from apartment to apartment...

FLATOW: But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NEWCOMBE: And it is actually the kind--that's also--it's not actually how we assess it, but the...

FLATOW: Well, let me...

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...phrase it in a different way. How--and let me ask the audience, if they want to ask a question, they can--please come up to the microphones. How does any of this translate into where you're going to be later in life, by how well you do on any of these things?

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, that's actually where I was headed.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Because there is evidence that spatial skill is part of mechanical skill and also part of success in science and technology and engineering and even mathematics and those kinds of disciplines, so that takes us directly back to Larry Summers.

FLATOW: Let me ask Janet Hyde, do you agree with what you've been hearing here, that men and women, or boys and girls, different in skills and that--what is your take on this?

Dr. HYDE: Well, I agree with much of what I've heard, but I also want to make sure that we keep the forest in view and don't get lost in the trees. Dr. Halpern listed a long list of different abilities where men and women might differ or might not. And the interesting thing, of course, is you asked her for where the differences were, and she reminded you that there are not always differences in every area. The research that I've conducted, using a technique called meta-analysis, which we don't need to worry listeners with, but it's a way of synthesizing lots and lots of studies done on a variety of topics.

So I did one on gender differences in math performance. I found a hundred studies that tested over three million people, and overall, there wasn't a gender difference in math performance. So let's keep that big picture in mind. Yes, you can, if you look at certain ages and certain kinds of skills, and some of them are important, like complex problem-solving in novel situations, then you do get some differences favoring boys and men, but even then, they aren't huge. So the big picture that we really need to get out to the public--because the stereotypes are quite to the contrary--the big picture is that actually there aren't any gender differences in abilities, unless we look at certain ages and very certain kinds of tests.

On the question of spatial ability, yes, there is a gender difference there, but we have a number of studies showing that you can train spatial abilities. Some of those are done by Nora Newcombe, who's on this program. We can get large effects training spatial ability, and significantly, we don't have a spatial curriculum in the schools. So if we're going to do something, what we ought to do is work for a spatial curriculum in the schools.

There's also an interesting study that was done by a woman at one of the University of Wisconsin campuses in their College of Engineering. She has a video method for improving spatial ability. She administers it to beginning freshmen engineering students, and she's improved the retention of women students in engineering from 47 percent to 77 percent. I think that's astonishing.

FLATOW: Wow, that's--yeah.

Dr. HYDE: And that's the direction we should be taking.

FLATOW: And how did she do that? I mean, what did--were there specific training that she did for these students?

Dr. HYDE: She's looking at this three-dimensional mental rotation that people have been talking about.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HYDE: Can you visually rotate? You can give people practice at that. She does it with a video program. You know, kids in elementary school, you can give them practice by looking at stacks of blocks from different angles and figuring out what it would look from a different angle and then walking around to it, and Dr. Newcombe can probably explain to you better what she's done with some of her spatial training programs. But this is not something wired in our brains. It's something that we learn through experience. And girls I--don't naturally get as much of that experience as boys, and what we need is a curriculum in the schools. What we're doing is we're neglecting an area where girls could really benefit.

FLATOW: Dr. Newcombe?

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, I totally agree.

FLATOW: Is this--is it practice that you're talking about here...

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, I think so.

FLATOW: ...or to train them?

Dr. NEWCOMBE: We have completed a study where we basically paid people to play Tetris. Now, of course, Tetris is sort of addictive anyway...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: ...so you may say, well, why did we pay them? But we wanted to be sure that they were playing, so they had to log on to our Web site and play, and men and women both improved dramatically. And, in fact, the degree of improvement is much larger than the sex difference. So it suggests that when we fixate on the sex difference, we're ignoring the possibility of improving. And what we're doing now, what I'm doing now in collaboration with a team, including Steve Kosslyn at Harvard, is looking at the patterns of brain activity in men and women before they received this training and then after they get the training, because that speaks to the whole issue of the brain and destiny and what we're expecting to see is plasticity. When you get better...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: ...you use different parts of the brain or more, you know, activity in certain parts of the brain, or less possibly, but different.

FLATOW: We've had a scientist on following his--I think is Dr. Stickgold, who studies Tetris. He has his students play Tetris, and he's discovered that unless his students get eight hours of sleep...

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Right.

FLATOW: ...they lose their ability...

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...to play--they--I mean, sleep was that important in cementing this learning--maybe women and boys don't sleep the same way, so when they do, they learn something they don't--I mean, could--oh, never mind. You're the scientist. Let me go to the audience...

Unidentified Man #1: I want to pick up on this difference--this nature/nurture difference that I think is frequently confused. I study the gender differences and emotion, and frequently see newspaper accounts of women light up more areas of their brain than men and, therefore, they are more emotional by nature. And what is ignored in that is something that we would chide our first-year students, is the confusion of causation and correlation.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Right.

Unidentified Man #1: That when you learn, you change your brain structure, and by simply taking a cross-section of people and seeing where they are as adults in terms of their expression of emotion ignores 20 to 30 years of learning history. So your points about the kind of carefully controlled experiments that actually give the training and then see what the differences are are really what's needed.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you. 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to the phones to Sarah in Gloucester Point, Virginia. Is that right, Sarah?

SARAH (Caller): Yes. That's right.

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead, please.

SARAH: I wanted to comment regarding the--what the Harvard president said, and I think usually we're thinking about the academic environment and women succeeding in the academic environment, and I just wanted to note that it isn't just about, you know, doing good research. It's, you know, being successful and academia involved, you know, conveying your research to other people, which is a communications skill, also in writing, you know, verbally communicating that and communicating through writing. And so I think it's--to say that that's the reason, is--you know, if it's this underlying difference in scientific ability, that actually being successful in academia involves a lot of diverse skills.

FLATOW: More than just being good at math and science, you're saying.

SARAH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Halpern, you're shaking your head at that.

Dr. HALPERN: Yes. Actually, he--in his paper, he gave three reasons why--possibilities why--could have accounted for it. One had to do with the actual nature of getting tenure in academia and had to do with the actual work-family balance and the fact that in academia, you have--it's really 36 or so before you even go up for tenure, and by that time, the biological clock running at the same time as the tenure clock and the particular nature of how one gets tenured in academia and as being another possibility--the particular--you know, his was a particular--you know, how one gets tenured, and if you look at the base rates, in any way, there are very few women overall who are full professors at research universities in academia.

FLATOW: Dr. Liben, now I want to ask you to talk a bit about this very interesting study about geography...

Dr. LIBEN: OK.

FLATOW: ...that's go--please, tell us wh--that boys and girls have a tremendous difference in knowing where people are on the Earth or the countries or what?

Dr. LIBEN: Well, actually, it's not as tremendous as it looks. One of the reasons that there seems to be this huge geography gender gap, as it's sometimes called, is that it comes from the National Geographic Bee, which, in fact, happens in this very auditorium, and by the time we see the finalists, the 57 state-level finalists on this stage, roughly maybe 55 of them are boys and two are girls in a given year, and so it looks like there is a huge gap in geography knowledge. And the work that we've done--Roger Downs, a geographer, and I have done is to try to understand where that comes from. And if you look at the children who are interested in geography and who enter the Bee, there's really not very much difference, and if you--as you get to each higher and higher level of the competition, more boys relative to girls are winning. And the question is: Is it really that they have this huge difference in knowledge?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LIBEN: And the answer seems to be no. It's not a huge difference in knowledge; it is a small difference in knowledge. And then when you look at why boys seem to know more, I go back to the spatial skill difference. So it turns out--actually, it's almost funny. The water level predict task, as silly as it might seem, is actually one of the best predictors for how many questions these children get right on the written geography qualifying test. Why could that be? Well, one reason is that they're more likely to use maps in the car, they're more comfortable with maps. The mental rotation that the others have talked about--you don't have to necessarily turn the map and you can tell where you're going. That leads you then, in turn, to look more at atlases and get some of that knowledge.

So what start out as actually some small differences can get multiplied by the kinds of experiences you seek and the specific knowledge you get, even though it's not as huge as a difference as it looks.

FLATOW: So the spatial disorientation you might have in turning a map upside down, it just makes you not want to study maps.

Dr. LIBEN: Well, yeah.

FLATOW: Basically that simple.

Dr. LIBEN: I mean, that's maybe a little exaggeration.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LIBEN: But yes, it's part of the issue.

FLATOW: Yeah. Can you close the gap on that by training or anything?

Dr. LIBEN: Well, yeah. I think part of--I was amused by thinking about the mental rotation and bringing home the easy-to-assemble furniture or easy-to-assemble toys or whatever.

FLATOW: The bicycle, right.

Dr. LIBEN: And one of the issues is that, to the degree that you are better at mental rotation skills, you're more likely to do that kind of thing and so on. But the other issue is that men are more likely to grab those directions out of the box, and if the woman or the child...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LIBEN: ...I think this is also relevant to education--tries to start doing it, it's very common that somebody grabs it away. And so you don't get the practice.

FLATOW: Ah. It's early remote-control training.

Dr. LIBEN: That's right. And the same thing in the math, you know.

FLATOW: I see. Starts out that si--yes. Here in the audience.

Unidentified Woman: Hi. This is a little more relevant to what you were talking about a few minutes ago. But one of the reasons to think that there's partly a biological basis for the difference in the visuospatial mental rotation differences is that the sex difference in adults in mental rotation disappears during the point in the menstrual cycle when women's estrogen levels are low. Women score worse than men on the mental rotation test when their estrogen levels are high, but the same women score equal to men when their estrogen levels are low. So that's one reason to think that it's partly biological.

But then there are people like Claude Steele, who have shown that it has a lot to do with what society has told you to expect. So women often score worse on math tests, and he'll tell this audience that this test has been specially designed and shown to be gender-neutral. Women score just as well on this test as men. He gives the same exact math test that women usually score worse on and now they don't score any worse.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Woman: So we know that there's, you know, both the societal expectations and the biology going in there.

And one last comment. In terms of doing more spatial education in schools, I think not only would that be wonderful for girls and improve their spatial abilities, but there are a lot of boy who get classified as having learning problems because they're not so good on the verbal that we emphasize in school who are fantastic on the spatial. And their self-esteem and self-confidence would also improve if the spatial was more emphasized in school, I think.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Well, we're talking about gender differences this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

We'll learn one thing in 15 years of doing this program is when you talk to psychologists, they don't ask questions. You do the question asking.

Let me ask Dr. Hyde to comment on that--what you just heard on that. Any comment, Dr. Hyde?

Dr. HYDE: Well, I--yes. I think that's just an excellent point that not only girls but also boys would benefit from a spatial curriculum in the schools. I mean, we really need to work on that. And I think that's a good example of a case--what often happens is that when we institute a program to try to help girls in an area where they're underrepresented, it also turns out that boys benefit as well. So we shouldn't think that these special programs for girls just benefit girls; they benefit everyone. And it's just something that's lacking in the curriculum in most schools in the United States.

FLATOW: Right. Let's go to Laura in Portland on the phone. Hi, Laura. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LAURA (Caller): Hi. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

LAURA: I would just like to say that I just took a dental admissions exam, which has a huge component on spatial relations type of testing, and I scored very high on it, but initially I didn't do very well. And it took a lot of practice on my part to get those skills up. I feel like a lot of this is society, and until I attended Mills College, a women's college in Oakland, California, I didn't have that sense of ability. Once I finished there, a lot of that was build in me that helped me go on to a co-ed education. I ended up graduating with the highest grade in my physics class, so I really think that as long as you know you can do it, you'll rock.

FLATOW: Did you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Did you feel less intimidated or better taken care of?

LAURA: I felt like it was just expected that you could do it and you didn't have this feeling of `girls can't do it.'

FLATOW: Drs., I have about a minute to break. Do you want to make a comment? Dr. Newcombe?

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, I actually have both a girl and a boy, and I think because I was aware of these things I ended up rearing a sort of high-spatial girl and a high-verbal boy because I sort of went against the grain. We spent a lot of time, you know, especially my husband spent a lot of time with my daughter building and with my son--he would spend time weaving these stories about, you know, superheroes and their adventures. So there you do.

FLATOW: But we also hear stories on this--goes into education--about girls afraid to speak up in classrooms, you know, of boys and girls because they're intimidated. Could this be something that she's talking about also?

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Oh, yeah. No, I think that's a big part of it. I once heard from an engineering student, a female engineering student that the difference between her and her male compatriots was when they got a D on a test she cried and they, you know, said, `I'm going to do better next time,' and that really captures a whole theme in psychology.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. We'll get into that a little bit later. We have to take a break. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more about gender differences with Nora Newcombe, Diane Halpern, Lynn Liben and Janet Hyde. So stay with us. We'll take more questions from the audience here in Washington. Don't go away. We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about gender differences and cognitive abilities. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to the audience here in Washington. Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #2: I have a couple questions, neither of which are really scientific. The first is sort of tongue in cheek, and that is we're talking about gender differences and I notice there are no men on the panel. So I'm wondering about that. But the second question has to do with if I were a layperson I would be inclined to believe that all of my general experiences are false and whether or not psychologists are basically telling me not to believe what I see. For example, if you go to a preschool and you just watch the kids you will clearly see what looks like gender differences in behavior. In the map reading, if you watch a commercial or watch people driving, you'll see the man driving and not wanting to look at the map when the wife is saying, `Look at the map, sweetheart.' But on a more serious note really, what is the general public supposed to believe about what psychologists tell them about what they see? Because most people, I think, in general do feel that when they watch children, especially boys and girls in preschool and otherwise, that the differences are so profound that they tend to believe that they're not all simply environmental.

Dr. HYDE: Could I respond to that, please?

FLATOW: Sure. Dr.--go ahead.

Dr. HYDE: Yeah. I mean, you raise such an important question, so I'm glad we have a chance to address it. The thing that you're talking about is what social psychologists call the stereotype confirmation process. That is once we have a stereotype in our heads--like girls can do math, or blacks are less intelligent--we have a tendency to see every instance that confirms our stereotype and we filter out all the counterexamples. So we remember all the girls who have been helpless and bad at math. We filter out the boys who are bad at math. We remember the math geniuses. When we're watching a playground we have a stereotype that boys are more aggressive, and so we see all the boys fighting and we miss the girls fighting. So there's a powerful, a cognitive process that leads us to confirm the ideas we already have in our heads. So I'm not saying that you didn't see what you saw on the playground or in the school; those events happen. What I'm saying is that we--all of us--miss a lot of disconfirming evidence.

Best examples come from things like Deborah Tannen's books about how men and women can't communicate 'cause it's like they're from different planets. And in fact, there aren't many gender differences in communication if you test it scientifically. People believe Tannen's books because they'll see a single instance of a male-female failing to communicate and they'll say, `Oh, Tannen's right,' whereas you and I are actually talking right now and I understood exactly what you said and I'll bet you're understanding what I'm saying. So that's the stereotype confirmation process and why we ignore all the disconfirming evidence.

FLATOW: That's Dr. Hyde at the University of Wisconsin. Any comments? I'll start down here; we'll work our way down. Diane Halpern?

Dr. HALPERN: Yeah. Also I think you were talking about watching kids on a playground playing. We're really talking about their cognitive abilities and skills. And you know, you're talking about who's running around and they're playing in different kinds of groups, and we're talking here about they're reading and they're doing math and they're not quite the same thing. You're talking about somebody who's doing the driving, which is a socially defined kind of thing who socially gets in the car and drives, not their ability to read a map. So those are really also different kinds of things that we're talking about.

FLATOW: Lynn Liben?

Dr. LIBEN: But I would not say that there are no sex differences, and the spatial ones are big ones and they will translate in part into seeing different play patterns and so on. Again, the social situation can exaggerate those. But I'm just struck--I'm in the middle of a research project right now which is looking at geology learning, and we're taking college students and they've been actually prescreened for how they do on the water level task, so we have people who are bad, medium and very good, and we take them outside and we have them try to do a strike and dip measurement which, for those of you who don't know geology, has to do with which way the rocks are going, and it's a spatial test. They have to translate that information to a map. And sex predicts to how well they do above and beyond how well they did on the water level task.

Now what is it about that? I mean, it's--again, it doesn't mean that there's an inherent difference that came biologically that's unchangeable, but I think we are seeing some behavioral differences. We are seeing some cognitive differences. It's not all males and all females, and actually--I mean, talking about the wrong questions and caveats--I think it's just as some of Diane's comments earlier about what kinds of questions we should be asking. It's not just about sex differences. Sex differences are sexy, but I think sex differences are really interesting because they point us to both biological and social behaviors that are different and in different proportions in males and females. And it's not sex per se.

So I once talked about the water level task to an engineering group, and the dead came up to me and I had mentioned the sex difference in the water level task and he came up to me and he said, `Oh, no wonder the women are dropping out of engineering.' And I thought, `Oh, no, even though I'd tried not to do that.' And he said, `Well, maybe we need to give different kinds of education for the male and the female engineering students.' And my answer was, `No, when they come in, don't send the boys or the men to one room and the women to another room. Give them the water level task or a mental rotation task or some other spatial task,' and some of them--and it may be disproportionate numbers, so there may be more women that end up in the group that gets training on how to recognize horizontals and verticals, but it should be how well they do on that, not whether they're male or female that sends them to one group to get some additional work or develop some strategies or get Tetris or whatever.

FLATOW: Well, I was going to ask about if they get Tetris? If you're a parent and you have kids and you're listening to this, should you then, knowing this about the difference, expose your children to more--different tasks?

Dr. LIBEN: I--yes, absolutely. And we've done some work with looking at parent-child interaction over a picture book. Lisa Szechter and I worked a book called "Zoom," and it's fabulous. You see an image, and then what's happening is you back up, back up, back up, and something you've thought was a farm turns out to be a toy farm and then it--you realize, no, it's not a toy farm; it's a picture of a farm on a catalog and the catalog, etc. And we watch parents reading that book to their three- and five-year-old children. Some parents talk about the spatial graphic component of that book and they point out--you know, even getting up in their child's face and saying, `This is what happens when you get close.' Others just point out, `There's a pig or there's a barn,' and so on. And we find that the parents who talk more about the spatial graphic ideas have children who do better on spatial graphic tests. Most parents, especially educated parents, are very aware of the verbal, you know, reading to their children, word challenges, but they don't very often think about suggesting so that their child navigate in a car or something.

FLATOW: Or play a video game that might have...

Dr. LIBEN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...Tetris or other video games.

Dr. LIBEN: Right.

FLATOW: Nora, you're shaking your head.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Well, you know, there's this book about how everything, you know, bad is actually good for you which makes this point about video games, and I think it's really true. And then what you have to do is look at the content of a lot of these video games, which includes this aggressive quality. So you wander around the maze in order to shoot people. So no wonder men are playing more of it because--actually, I disagree a little bit with Janet. I think there is a sex difference in aggression. But we can design video games that are much more gender-neutral or that appeal to women. And actually, the best-selling game of all time, I'm told, is The Sims.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: And the reason The Sims sells so well is 'cause it sells to girls as well as to boys. So there you go.

FLATOW: I can attest to my kids. My girls love that game.

1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to the audience here. Sir.

Mr. LARRY ALFERINK (Illinois State University): Larry Alferink from Illinois State University. You probably are aware that there are studies on lateralizational function and that it is said that one gender has one hemisphere dominant and the other gender has the other hemisphere dominant, giving a biological kick to this again.

Unidentified Panelist: Uh-huh.

Mr. ALFERINK: There's even efforts I just read in Newsweek a couple of weeks ago about a school that decided to segregate boys in one classroom and girls in another classroom so that they could teach specifically to individuals with right-brain-dominant hemispheres in one room and left-brain-dominant hemispheres in another room. And I just ask you to comment on sort of all the--first of all, the brain-based lateralization teaching and, second, the practice of segregating the sexes in that way.

FLATOW: Dr. Newcombe.

Dr. NEWCOMBE: The right-brain/left-brain stuff is just--it's like a vampire. I don't know how to drive a stake through its heart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Someone ought to do this. And, you know, identifying the stake is a challenge for psychology. It just isn't true. There may be some subtle differences, but if there are subtle differences, they're really subtle. The studies don't replicate, they involve incredibly difficult, you know, interactions, to use a technical term. It's really all over the map. I think there's somewhere a story there, but it's so complicated, it hasn't been told.

FLATOW: There you have it. We got the silver bullet out for you today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NEWCOMBE: Right.

FLATOW: Let me go to this guest.

LAURIE (Audience Member): I'm Laurie from ...(unintelligible) High School. And I was wondering if you thought that same-sex schools were better for students.

FLATOW: Ah. Dr. Halpern.

Dr. HALPERN: Well, I told you. I said we'd be asked that question.

FLATOW: Well, there you have it, and from a student.

Dr. HALPERN: That question is always asked. There are no cognitive reasons for same-sex schools. And I think there's many reasons--and I think certainly people should have a choice of a whole variety of schools, just as you might have a choice of religious schools and certainly if someone wants same-sex schools and they're happy with it I wouldn't be opposed to it, but I can think of no good learning reasons or cognitive reasons for same-sex schools. We will all--basic rules of learning--how we learn, whether it's visual, spatial learning, whether it's verbal learning--we need all kinds of learnings for boys and girls.

FLATOW: But what about the atmosphere that the learning happens in? I mean...

Dr. HALPERN: Yeah...

FLATOW: ...if it's same-sex school, maybe the girls are not as intimidated or they feel more comfortable.

Dr. HALPERN: We can create good classrooms that don't intimidate girls or don't intimidate boys, and in fact, what we can do is increase the very sorts of things--unintended consequences--by separating boys and girls and treating them more as though they are distinct. We promote diversity of all sorts. We have a very diverse world, and just as we--and we--going into a world where there are men and women just as we educate our children with all sorts of diversity. I consider gender diversity to be one of them.

FLATOW: We're talking about diversity. We've lapsed into that on gender distinction on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Dr. Liben?

Dr. HYDE: I have to say...

FLATOW: Dr. Hyde, hang on a second. Let me get Dr. Liben in first.

Dr. HYDE: Sure.

Dr. LIBEN: Thank you very much. A couple of comments about same-sex schools. One is on the geography bee, we did find that girls from same-sex, all-girls schools did better on the qualifying tests. But guess what? Boys from all-boys schools did better on the qualifying test. And so it's probably more about who's choosing to send their children--what kinds of socioeconomic status are going to all--same-sex schools. That's one.

Secondly, a point about the atmosphere that also relates to an earlier question has to do with competitiveness. One other thing that we found in the geographic bee study is that there was no difference between boys and girls in relationship to their competition anxiety. We used a sports competition measure, and boys and girls both were--the relationship to how well they did in a stand-up competition was similar.

And then finally, I just want to agree with this point about separating and diversity. We have another area that I work in that has to do with gender and racial stereotypes. In work with Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas we talk about the consequences of constantly, including this show--I have some concerns about it--of constantly dividing our world into males and females. And we make the point in some of our writing that commonly teachers say, `Good morning, boys and girls.' They would never say, `Good morning, black children and white children.' It's--when you make these divisions, what you're constantly doing is saying there's something very important here about this division, and what are the negative consequences of making that division all the time. So it's a problem for those of us who actually work in this area. On the one hand, you feel as though you're undermining the very thing you believe in. So...

FLATOW: OK. Let me--Janet Hyde, you wanted to jump in there.

Dr. HYDE: Right. Yeah, I did want to. First of all, I wanted to say something in response to the call-in person who had gone to Mills College, which is an all women's college and about how it facilitated her. And I think, you know, that's so true. But I have to also say that I went to Oberlin College, which was the first co-educational college in the United States, co-educational at 1837. And I felt like I had a great education there and I didn't...

FLATOW: Let me just clarify. You didn't go there in 1837.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HYDE: No, not in 1830...

FLATOW: I just wanted to--OK.

Dr. HYDE: No, not until 1898. But I think we--the bigger point, too, is the one that Lynn was just raising. And this notion of single-sex classrooms and single-sex schools for math instruction really sends chills up and down my spine because we're back to separate but not equal. And the point is if we said the black kids are going to go to this classroom and the white kids are going to go to that one, nobody would accept it, and I don't understand why it suddenly becomes acceptable to say that about boys and girls. I think it's a very dangerous road to go down.

FLATOW: All right. I have one quick question--time for a quick question from the audience.

Ms. LISA HARLEY: Lisa Harley(ph), University of Rhode Island. I do work with trying to increase interest, retention and performance in science, particularly quantitative science, and a lot of the things talked about today resonate with me that it may be biological, it may be environmental; I don't believe it's biological, but there are differences sometimes. But what I see is if you not necessarily separate the classrooms, but if you teach such that you increase the level of confidence and you lower the level of anxiety, you get about the same performance. For whatever reason, women and girls tend to have more of what I call type 2 error rate, which is really a false negative; they're less apt to say what they know. And men are--boys, a little bit more apt to have maybe a type 1 error rate, positive. Kind of like they will be willing to risk saying something when it's maybe not so right.

And I think if you are just increasing the confidence of everyone, lowering the anxiety levels, gender differences will ameliorate.

FLATOW: All right. That's the last question I can take from the audience, so I have to thank you all for taking time to be with us. So Nora Newcombe, professor of psychology and distinguished faculty fellow at Temple University in Philadelphia; Diane Halpern, who's the past president of the American Psychological Association and professor and chair of psychology and director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family & Children at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California; Dr. Lynn Liben, distinguished professor of psychology at Penn State University; and Janet Hyde, the Helen Thompson Woolley Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

(Credits)

FLATOW: If you'd like to write to us, send your letters to SCIENCE FRIDAY, 55 West 45th Street, Fourth Floor, New York, New York 10036. Also, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com where we have the Kids' Connection where we make free teaching curricula for teachers to just click on the teachers button on the left side and take it to class with you. Also, we are podcasting SCIENCE FRIDAY, so if you missed listening to the whole program you can download a podcast from this show or lots of other shows in the past and all the different kinds of topics that we cover.

I'm Ira Flatow in Washington.

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