Science Of Small Talk

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Mars and Venus in the … Parking Garage?

When we think about sex differences, intuition often gets in the way.

It's official. Empirical research has finally demonstrated that which many of us instinctually knew all along: men are better parkers than women.

This news won't come as a surprise to many. Ask men and women to rate their own parking abilities, and the men are more generous. Moreover, just think about all the relevant and well-established sex differences in the scientific literature, such as men's superior spatial skills and navigational abilities. The parking gap also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective–males have always been the more likely sex to experiment with tools, seek to master their physical environment, and explore new methods of personal conveyance. And anyway, when's the last time you saw a female valet parking cars at a restaurant?

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Except here's the catch: everything I just wrote about the parking study is false.

Here's the actual headline about the actual research: Women are better at parking than men, study says.

That's right, in research conducted in the United Kingdom, surreptitious surveillance of parking garages revealed that on a variety on dimensions, females outperformed their male counterparts when it came to the art of parking. For example, women proved superior at leaving their cars in the middle of a space. They were even better at locating empty spaces to begin with.

In fact, the only true statement about the study to appear in the opening two paragraphs of my post is that the men in the study believed that they were better parkers. They expressed more confidence in their parking performance than did women, despite objective evidence to the contrary.

But when I reported the false result of male parking superiority, it sure was easy to come up with scientific-sounding explanations for it, wasn't it? And now that you know the actual findings, I'm sure you can, post-hoc, do the same thing to explain why women really performed better.

It's one of the perils of theorizing about sex differences: our own expectations and intuitions get in the way. We hear about a study that reveals a significant sex gap and we immediately jump to conclusions. Quite often, these conclusions focus on innate or biological accounts–we work backward from an observed difference between men and women to arrive at a plausible physiological or evolutionary explanation. And we wind up with misplaced confidence that entrenched, inborn, Mars/Venus differences are at hand.

This is often the best we can do when it comes to studies of sex difference: mere speculation. In a true experiment, the researcher controls and manipulates a particular variable, randomly assigning participants to condition, and then is able to conclude with some confidence that any changes in the outcome variable are attributable to that manipulation. But with sex, we can't manipulate the variable of interest or assign people to conditions.

Sure, we can conduct experimental tests of related questions–isolating, for example, the effects of receiving a particular hormone on a particular outcome. But that's not what happens in research like the parking garage study, which is a simple comparison of two groups of people that, yes, presumably differ in anatomical and hormonal ways, but likely vary on a wide range of socialization and experiential dimensions as well.

Consider, for example, the well-established superiority of men regarding spatial skills (such as shape rotation and navigation through unfamiliar environments). It's easy to come up with evolutionarily-grounded explanations for this difference. But it's also surprisingly easy to reduce or even eliminate the difference.

How? Just change people's frame of mind. In a study by German researchers, before completing a standard test of shape rotation, respondents were asked to think about either a family-oriented woman or a man with a high-powered job. After thinking about a stereotypically female role, the men outperformed the women. But after thinking about an alpha male, men and women performed comparably.

Or simply pay attention to the non-biological differences that also exist between the sexes. Recent research indicates that much of the apparent male superiority in spatial skill can be attributed to men's greater exposure to video games. In a study by Canadian researchers, intensive "video game training" improved the spatial test performance of previous non-gamers, especially when they were female.

So the next time you read an eye-catching headline touting a provocative sex difference, pause for a moment. Don't jump to the conclusion that it has to be an innate, entrenched, biological difference. The truth is, you (and the researchers) may not know what's causing the effect. As I explore in my new book, Situations Matter, a wide range of supposedly fixed sex differences turns out to be surprisingly context-dependent: spatial skill, math ability, pickiness in choosing dating partners, and even aggression.

And if you ever need a reminder about the power of expectation and assumption with respect to sex difference, just look at the poll at the bottom of the MSNBC story about the parking garage research. When asked which sex is better at parking, even after reading about the garage study, 38% go with men and only 25% pick women. When it comes to sex differences, we often let our intuition cloud our judgment, data be damned.

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Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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