Are Gender Differences in Episodic Memory Universal?

New study finds that women outperform men, but only in gender-equal societies.

Posted Aug 01, 2018

Almost everyone knows that certain memory skills—like short-term memory—decline as one gets older. Less well-known is that, among older persons, women typically perform better than men on episodic memory tasks.

By Jeff Katz CC BY-SA 3.0
Actress Marilu Henner has superior episodic memory.
Source: By Jeff Katz CC BY-SA 3.0

Episodic memory refers to remembering the things we do, the people we meet, the stuff we read or see on TV—in short, all the things we experience directly. Episodic memory is sometimes referred to as "autobiographical memory."

Psychological scientists measure the capacity of episodic memory in several ways, but one of the most common methods is to ask a test subject to read a list of words and then recall as many of the words as they can, either immediately or after a delay.

As you might expect, individuals differ greatly in their ability to recall a list of words. But in a general sense, (1) younger people perform better than older people on such tasks and (2) older women perform better than older men.

Or at least that's what memory scientists believed until they read the findings of two recent studies done in non-Western countries. The studies—one in China and one in India—found that older men performed better than older women on tests of episodic memory.

Some scientists get frustrated by incompatible findings, especially when they seem to suggest that memory doesn't work the same way everywhere. But others love to unravel mysteries, confident that they'll discover a fundamental principle that can explain the seemingly contradictory data.

Three researchers at Columbia University—Eric Bonsang, Vergad Skirbekk, and Ursula Staudinger—decided to investigate age-related gender differences in episodic memory by comparing data from different countries. In 2017, they culled pertinent information from nationally-representative surveys conducted in 27 nations. Altogether, they gathered responses from more than 225,000 individuals. Some were male, and some were female. Their ages ranged from 50 to 93.

Every person in the study completed a simple episodic memory task. Specifically, the participant listened to an interviewer read a list of 10 words and then recalled as many words as they could within one minute. The number of words recalled was the measure of episodic memory.

The researchers discovered that, in some countries, women typically remembered 8-10% more words than men did. Sweden, the United States, and Denmark, for example. In other countries—Ghana, India, and South Africa—women remembered about 7% fewer words than men did. In still other countries—Hungary and Italy, for example—women and men generally performed the same.

The researchers' most interesting discovery was that women outperformed men in countries that reject traditional gender-role attitudes but underperformed men in traditional gender-role societies.

The degree to which a country held traditional gender-role attitudes was assessed with a single question: When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women. Agree or disagree? Very few people in Denmark and Sweden agreed with that statement, but more than half of the respondents in Ghana and India did.

The association between traditional gender roles and a male advantage in immediate word recall was very strong, r = +.80. The relationship persisted even after the researchers controlled statistically for differences in wealth among the 27 nations.

Bonsang, Skirbekk, and Staudinger can't say for sure why less traditional gender-role attitudes are associated with a female advantage in episodic memory, but they do propose a plausible interpretation: Women who live in a gender-equal society are more likely to be better educated and more likely to work outside the home. As a result, they are mentally stimulated throughout their lives and develop higher levels of cognitive functioning.

In sum, the female advantage in episodic memory may be "natural" in the same sense that boys and men have a "natural" advantage on tasks that require visual-spatial processing. The female advantage, however, can be eliminated and even reversed when women occupy traditional roles that keep them at home and relatively uneducated.

References

Bonsang, E., Skirbekk, V., & Staudinger, U. M. (2017). As you sow, so shall you reap: Gender-role attitudes and late-life cognition. Psychological Science28(9), 1201-1213.

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