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Why There Are Sex Differences in General Knowledge

Baron-Cohen's theory of empathizing–systemizing may provide an explanation.

A number of research studies have found that on average males score higher than females on tests of general knowledge (e.g. Ackerman, Bowen, Beier, & Kanfer, 2001; Lynn & Irwing, 2002; Lynn, Irwing, & Cammock, 2002, among many others).1 The reasons for this are not yet clear. Some psychologists consider acquired knowledge as an important component of intelligence, although one among many other components, most of which show no sex differences. The concept of crystallised intelligence explicitly includes how much information a person has acquired in their life, and a number of IQ batteries, such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales include measures of general knowledge. Differences in verbal ability or abstract reasoning have been ruled out as explanations (Lynn & Irwing, 2002). Some researchers have argued that differences are most likely due to different interest held by men and women respectively. One study for example found that out of 19 domains of knowledge tested, males scored significantly higher on 12 domains, whereas women scored higher on two domains, medicine and cookery. Women are generally more interested in nurturing roles than men, so it makes sense that they would be more knowledgeable in these two areas. What is more puzzling though is that in other domains considered stereotypically feminine, there were either no gender differences (fashion and art), or men actually scored higher (literature). Previous research has found that women do tend to express more interest in artistic activities (Su, Rounds, & Armstrong, 2009) yet they did not have more knowledge of art than men. Males scored higher on domains related to current affairs, physical health and recreation, science, and in “Jazz and Blues” music.

Trivial pursuit questions have been used in experimental tests of general knowle
Trivial pursuit questions have been used in experimental tests of general knowledge.

One explanation proposed for the male advantage in these domains, derived from evolutionary psychology, is that males are “biologically programmed” to be more concerned with competition for status and power, and these are central to such areas as current affairs (which includes politics and finance) and to the sport and games areas included in physical health and recreation. This seems all very well for those particular domains, especially politics in which status and power concerns are very salient. However, “current affairs” in this study also encompassed the domains of history, geography, and exploration and discovery and it is less clear how competition for status and power would lead to greater knowledge of these areas. Similarly, it is much less clear if this theory can explain why males would have greater knowledge of general science and biology or even the supposedly ‘feminine’ domain of literature. The authors admitted that gender differences in particular interests might be culturally determined but this still begs the question of why these differences occur, particularly in modern western societies where gender equality is increasingly emphasised.

Previous research has found that from an early age boys tend to show more interest in things, whereas girls show a greater interest in people (Su, et al., 2009). Simon Baron-Cohen (2003) has proposed that due to differences in the organisation of the brain, males have a bias towards “systematising”, that is, understanding the principles behind how things work, whereas females have a bias towards “empathising”, that is, understanding how people think and feel in particular social situations. This model might help explain why males tend to acquire greater factual knowledge than females. Males might have a greater motivation to gain factual knowledge due to a desire to understand how things in the world operate. Females might find this less appealing as they may be more motivated to learning about and understanding people they have relationships with. As far as I know, there has not been any research examining whether gender differences in general knowledge are related to variation in systematising versus empathising.

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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.

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Ackerman, Phillip L.; Bowen, Kristy R.; Beier, Margaret E. & Kanfer, Ruth (2001). "Determinants of individual differences and gender differences in knowledge". Journal of Educational Psychology 93 (4): 797–825. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.4.797

Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The essential difference: men, women and the extreme male brain. London: Penguin.

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

Su, R., Rounds, J., & Armstrong, P. I. (2009). Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests. Psychological Bulletin, 135(6), 859–884. doi: 10.1037/a0017364


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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