Women are better than men at recognizing living things and men are better than women at recognizing vehicles, a new study finds.
Although car commercials tend to dominate advertising for TV shows targeting a male audience and vehicles are often associated with other aspects of male culture, the study results, published in the journal Vision Research, even surprised the psychologist authors.
"Our motivation was to assess the role that expertise plays in object recognition with a new test that includes many different categories, so we weren't looking for this result," Vanderbilt University professor of psychology Isabel Gauthier was quoted as saying in a press release.
"These results aren't definitive, but they are consistent with the following story," she continued. "Everyone is born with a general ability to recognize objects and the capability to get really good at it. Nearly everyone becomes expert at recognizing faces, because of their importance for social interactions. Most people also develop expertise for recognizing other types of objects due to their jobs, hobbies or interests. Our culture influences which categories we become interested in, which explains the differences between men and women."
Are women and men are still somehow genetically hardwired to visually process various things differently? Thousands of years of making tools or gathering veggies might have left their mark in our DNA.
"This isn't the first time that sex differences have been found in perceptual tasks," Gauthier said. "For example, previous studies have shown that men have an advantage in mental rotation tasks.
In fact, a recent study looking only at car recognition found that men were better than women but attributed this to the male advantage in mental rotation. Our finding that women are better than men at recognizing objects in other categories suggests that this explanation is incorrect."
For the study, she and her team had 223 subjects - 102 male and 121 female - familiarize themselves with eight categories of visually similar objects: leaves, owls, butterflies, wading birds, mushrooms, cars, planes and motorcycles. The participants were then shown three images representing each of these categories, and were then asked to choose the one that they'd seen before.
Women aced the test when they were shown living things, but bombed on cars, planes and motorcycles. Men were just the opposite. They tended to quickly recognize cars, planes and motorcycles, but more often forgot the other images.
You probably know a car-obsessed women or a bird fanatic man. Perhaps you even fall into one of these groups yourself. If John James Audubon were still around and had lived to see the car age, I wonder how he would have done on the test...
(Image Credit: Julie Turner, Vanderbilt University)