There are several human characteristics considered to be genetically predetermined and evolutionarily innate, such as immune system strength, physical adaptations and even sex differences. These qualities drive the nature versus nurture debate and ask of our species, who is more successful and why?
Psychologists Agneta Herlitz and Jenny Rehnman in Stockholm, Sweden asked an even more complicated question of human predisposition: Does one’s sex influence his or her ability to remember every day events? Their surprising findings did in fact determine significant sex differences in episodic memory, a type of long-term memory based on personal experiences, favoring women.
Specific results indicated that women excelled in verbal episodic memory tasks, such as remembering words, objects, pictures or everyday events, and men outperformed women in remembering symbolic, non-linguistic information, known as visuospatial processing. For example, the results indicate a man would be more likely to remember his way out of the woods.
However, there are also sex differences favoring women on tasks such as remembering the location of car keys, which requires both verbal and visuospatial processing. Although men are commonly more confident than women that they could remember where in the house they put their car keys, pill bottles and other personal effects, women showed greater competence in actually finding the objects, said Robin West, a University of Florida psychology professor who designed the research project along with Duana Welch, a UF psychology graduate student. They studied men and women in the Gainesville area between the ages of 18 and 30, and 50 and 90, but they believe the findings apply to all ages.
“To say that when it comes to memory, women have more skill than confidence and men have more confidence than skill is a simplistic way to put it, but we found it to be true in this study,” said West, author of the book “Memory Fitness Over Forty.”
Perhaps women outperform men because they have more experience in finding things around the house, while men show more confidence because they are socialized throughout life to form strong self-convictions, Welch said. Also, she said, American women are brought up to be supportive and nonthreatening.
In her research of memory, West said she has found, regardless of age, that women are better than men at remembering grocery lists and people’s names. But men excel at certain spatial tasks, such as mentally rotating objects to see how they might fit into space, she said.
Men’s superiority on some spatial tasks has been explained, in part, by the different kinds of play activities males and females engage in as children, West said.
“Boys traditionally do things that involve larger movements in space and using their whole body, such as playing baseball or running games,” she said, “whereas traditional girls’ activities tend to be in smaller, more restricted spaces, such as playing with dolls, which involves staying in one place and manipulating objects by hand.”
“In addition, women are better than men at remembering faces, especially of females,” described Herlitz and Rehnman, “and the reason seems to be that women allocate more attention to female than to male faces.”
To determine this particular finding, the psychologists presented three groups of participants with black and white pictures of hairless, androgynous faces and described them as ‘female faces,’ ‘male faces’ or just ‘faces.’ The findings indicate that women were able to remember the androgynous faces presented as female more accurately than the androgynous faces presented as male.
In additional studies, psychologists also discovered that women perform better than men in tasks requiring little to no verbal processing, such as recognition of familiar odors, and that the female episodic memory advantage increases when women utilize verbal abilities and decreases when visuospatial abilities are required. Environmental factors, such as education, seem to influence the magnitude of these sex differences, as well.
Women remember people better than men. “Women have an advantage when it comes to remembering things like the physical features, clothing and postures of other people. This advantage might be due to women being slightly more people-oriented than men are.” said Terrence Horgan, lead author of a study in interpersonal sensitivity and research fellow in psychology at Ohio State University.
While the probability of genetically-based differences between the quality of male and female memory remains unknown, the results suggest that females currently hold the advantage in episodic (long-term) memory.
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