A World of Difference
- Saturday, July 19, 2003
Have you ever wondered why a man can seemingly read a map blindfolded but can't find his own socks? The reason may be found in his genetic makeup. Research is discovering that men and women actually perceive reality differently.
In one university experiment, students were blindfolded while an experimenter who served as a guide walked them through a complex maze of tunnels that ran beneath campus buildings. After traversing this maze, women were asked to locate a familiar college building. Nearly every woman in the experiment was uncertain and unable to locate it.
Men, on the other hand, had relatively little trouble with the task. In spite of all the subterranean twists and turns, men tended to retain a firm sense of direction and, with a kind of internal compass, were far more likely to identify the location of the building - even after walking through the maze blindfolded. Chalk one up for the male species.
But before you put all your money on men, consider another university experiment. In this one, students were asked to wait in a small room with a cluttered desk while the experimenter "got something ready." The students thought they were simply waiting for the experiment to begin, but this actually was the experiment.
After two minutes, each student was asked to describe in detail the waiting room from memory. Men, it turned out, didn't do well on the test, and were able to remember very little. Most men were barely able to describe much of the room in clear and accurate detail. They often missed major objects located on the desk right in front of them.
Women, on the other hand, could go on and on with precise descriptions of the room's contents. In fact, women proved 70 percent better than men at recalling complex patterns formed by apparently random and unconnected items. That's one point for the women's side. But who's keeping score?
In these experiments and dozens of others like them, men and women consistently perform at different levels - sometimes men outperform women and sometimes vice versa. Based on these results, scientists are suddenly fast at work trying to account for the differences; what they're finding may surprise you.
Why are researchers just now exploring the differences between men and women? The reason can be traced back to the 1970s, when the feminist revolution nearly prohibited talk of inborn differences in the behavior of males and females. Pointing out distinctions between the sexes was simply off limits if you were a respectable researcher wanting to keep your job.
Men dominated fields like architecture and engineering, it was argued, because of social, not hormonal, pressures. Women did the vast majority of society's child rearing because few other options were available to them.
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