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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Sex differences in spatial cognition: advancing the conversation

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The existence of a sex difference in spatial thinking, notably on tasks involving mental rotation, has been a topic of considerable research and debate. We review this literature, with a particular focus on the development of this sex difference, and consider four key questions: (1) When does the sex difference emerge developmentally and does the magnitude of this difference change across development? (2) What are the biological and environmental factors that contribute to sex differences in spatial skill and how might they interact? (3) How malleable are spatial skills, and is the sex difference reduced as a result of training? and (4) Does ‘spatializing’ the curriculum raise the level of spatial thinking in all students and hold promise for increasing and diversifying the STEM pipeline? Throughout the review, we consider promising avenues for future research. WIREs Cogn Sci 2016, 7:127–155. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1380 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Development and Aging Psychology > Learning
Stimuli shown to infants in the study by Quinn and Liben. The series of figures at the top depict the familiarization stimuli and the figures at the bottom depict the test trials.
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The distribution of mean spatial scores (in standard deviations) by occupations entered 11 years after spatial performance was assessed (adapted from Wai et al.). STEM occupations (bolded) all have positive spatial performance scores.
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Growth pattern in mental rotation performance over time for high and low spatially experienced women and for high spatially experienced men.
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Amount of improvement when children were trained to make either point or movement gestures while the experimenter made either point or move gestures.
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Performance levels of low, middle, and high SES second graders on the Thurstone Spatial Relations Test.
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Relation between spatial anxiety and mental rotation task performance as a function of working memory capacity for girls (a) and boys (b).
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Performance of women and men in explicit stereotype, stereotype nullified and control conditions on a line orientation perception test.
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Scatterplot showing association between visuospatial processing in infancy and mental transformation ability at 4 years of age. Infant performance on a spatial change detection task as measured via preference to the stream with the mirror image (chance performance = 0.50), significantly predicted 4‐year olds’ accuracy (chance performance = 0.25, r(51) = .47, P < .001) on a mental transformation task.
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Accuracy on mental rotation tasks as a function of stimulus type (animal pictures, letters, and cube figures), sex, and grade level in the study by Neuburger et al. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.
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Animal pictures, letters, and block figures used as mental rotation stimuli in the study by Neuburger et al. For each type of stimulus, two of the four choices can be rotated to match the target image shown on the left.
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Distributions of girls’ and boys’ spatial transformation scores in the study by Levine et al.
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Shepard–Metzler objects shown to infants in study by Moore and Johnson.
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Depiction of the Children's Mental Transformation Task, a 2D mental rotation task used by Levine et al. The child is asked to select the figure from among four choices (b) that can be made from the two pieces shown on the target card (a).
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