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Think Like a Man: Effects of Gender Priming on Cognition

Thinking of a "typical man" can boost women's performance on cognitive tasks

This post is in response to
Why There Are Sex Differences in General Knowledge

As noted in a previous posting, a number of studies have found that males outperform females on tests of general knowledge.1 The reasons for this are not yet clear. Women’s lower test performance could be because they actually have acquired less knowledge than men, or it could be that they are not accessing all the knowledge they have. Studies have found that experimental manipulations can actually improve a person’s performance on general knowledge tests to an extent. Women generally perform more poorly than men on spatial tasks, yet it has also been found that it is possible to experimentally improve women’s performance on these tasks so that they equal the performance of men. Whether or not it would be possible to improve women’s performance on tests of general knowledge relative to men has not yet been examined. Such a study would help illuminate whether gender differences in this area are due to real differences in acquired knowledge or mainly due to the nature of the testing situation.

Priming thoughts of a professor can improve recall of general knowledge

Priming thoughts of a professor can improve recall of general knowledge

Average male advantages in tests of general knowledge found in a number of studies have been attributed to differing interests between men and women rather than differences in ability (Lynn & Irwing, 2002; Lynn, Irwing, & Cammock, 2002). Another possibility that has not been explored in the research literature is that stereotype threat could have a detrimental effect on the performance of females in tests. Stereotypes are generally more favourable to men than women in intellectual domains. Men are generally perceived as more intelligent and rate themselves higher on intelligence than women (Ortner & Sieverding, 2008). Stereotypes can have a self-fulfilling effect and have been known to affect performance on achievement tests. For example, women who are reminded of their female identity perform more poorly on maths tests compared to a control group. However, priming of stereotypes can sometimes have a positive effect. Asian women primed with their Asian identity performed better than normally on a maths test

"Oh no, not a test!!!"

Priming of stereotypes has also been found to affect performance on tests of general knowledge for better or worse (Dijksterhuis & van Knipperburg, 1998). People who were asked to think about a typical soccer hooligan (stereotypically associated with stupidity) and to list behaviours and attributes associated with such a person performed more poorly on a general knowledge test compared to those who took the test with no priming. This experimental procedure was also performed using a prime of a professor (associated with intelligence) rather than a soccer hooligan, and in this case, people actually performed better compared to those who received no priming. Obviously, thinking of professors cannot somehow make a person more knowledgeable than they really are. The authors of this study suggested that a person’s typical performance on such a test is less than optimal, meaning there is usually room for improvement. Priming of the professor stereotype might improve performance by leading to specific behavioural changes, such as increased concentration or more analytical and systematic thinking. The hooligan prime might worsen performance by inducing sloppier thinking or reduced concentration (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998).

Gender differences in spatial tasks are considered to be well-established, having been extensively investigated by researchers. However, there is evidence that priming of stereotypes can improve women’s performance on such tasks to a level equivalent to that of men (Ortner & Sieverding, 2008). The stereotype prime used was that of gender itself. Participants were asked to read a text that was described as “a task to test ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person.” The text consisted of a description of a day in the life of either a “typical woman” or a “typical man”. For example, the typical woman text described a woman who looked after children, spent time chatting with her friends, and who liked to daydream. The typical man text, described a man who drove a motorbike to work, was outgoing and tough-minded, bossed people around at work, and lifted weights in his spare time. Participants were then asked to describe what they would be like if they were that person, to develop a sense of identification with the person in the story. Subsequently, they performed a mental rotation task. After being primed with the story about a typical woman, female participants performed much worse than males. Males who received this prime performed only slightly worse than males who received the typical man prime. What was very striking though was that after receiving the typical man prime, females performed nearly as well as males on this task. The authors argued that these results imply that “normal” testing situations involve subtle stereotype threats, even when stereotypes are not explicitly mentioned. Gender differences in performance can therefore be reduced by changing the way the task is presented.

Experimental tests of general knowledge have so far not examined the effects of stereotypes on gender differences in performance. It is possible that asking people to perform a knowledge test activates a subtle stereotype threat that adversely affects women. Using an experimental priming procedure such as the one described above could enhance the performance of women relative to men on such tests. If this proved to be the case it would imply that women actually know more than they are letting on when they typically perform such tests. On the other hand, if a substantial gender difference remained after such a procedure it would provide evidence that males do tend to acquire more knowledge than females. Perhaps this might be due to a greater interest in understanding how things work, as opposed to a greater interest in interpersonal concerns, which is stereotypically more feminine. Additionally, it is also possible that gender differences in general knowledge are the result of a combination of reduced female performance due to stereotype threat and greater actual knowledge by males. Even if priming stereotypes had a modest effect on female performance compared to that of males, it could provide some guidance on how to assist people of both sexes in using their knowledge more effectively.


1 I have compiled a detailed list of studies that have compared males and females in knowledge related domains that can be viewed here.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.

Other posts discussing intelligence and related topics

What is an Intelligent Personality?

Emotional intelligence is not relevant to understanding psychopaths

Why there are sex differences in general knowledge

The Knowledgeable Personality

Personality, Intelligence and “Race Realism”

Intelligence and Political Orientation have a complex relationship

Cold Winters and the Evolution of Intelligence: A critique of Richard Lynn’s Theory

The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences – a critique of Howard Gardner’s theory

More Knowledge, Less Belief in Religion?

Other posts discussing behavioural priming – these tend to be speculative but hopefully are thought-provoking

Opening the Mind: Where Skepticism and Superstition Meet

Reason Versus Faith? The Interplay of Intuition and Rationality In Supernatural Belief

Can turning a Wheel open your Mind? Clockwise movements increase openness to experience

Are Sex And Religion Natural Enemies?


Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of trivial pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (4), 865-877 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.74.4.865

Lynn, R., & Irwing, P. (2002). Sex differences in general knowledge, semantic memory and reasoning ability. British Journal of Psychology, 93(4), 545-556. doi: 10.1348/000712602761381394

Lynn, R., Irwing, P., & Cammock, T. (2002). Sex differences in general knowledge. Intelligence, 30(1), 27-39. doi: 10.1016/s0160-2896(01)00064-2

Ortner, T. M., & Sieverding, M. (2008). Where are the Gender Differences? Male Priming Boosts Spatial Skills in Women Sex Roles, 59 (3-4), 274-281 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-008-9448-