Boys and Girls, Spatial Reasoning, and Operating Heavy Equipment

January 8th, 2020

As part of a previous blog post, I indicated that women are few and far between in the construction trades, especially at the controls of heavy equipment (just 2% in my part of the world).

Perhaps there’s some kind of “biological handicap” at work?

Well, industrial psychologists have identified three “natural abilities” that are important for operating heavy equipment:

  • a “psycho-motor” ability associated with manual dexterity (moving your fingers, hands, and feet together) and “hand-eye” coordination
  • a “perceptual” ability associated with depth perception
  • a “cognitive” ability associated with keeping track of what’s around you, in three dimensions

And when it comes to boys vs. girls, or more generally men vs. women, the only distinctive and repeatable difference is the last one, often called “spatial reasoning”. And that’s why girls (women) typically struggle more than boys (men) with tasks associated with spatial reasoning such as reading a map, or retracing your steps to find the car that you parked (hours ago).

Well, it might be tempting to think that prehistoric men needed “better” spatial reasoning to find their way home after hunting, but prehistoric women needed just as much spatial reasoning to find their way to the “right” nuts and berries to gather [1].

Fortunately, recent neuro-cognitive research [2] tells us that the brain that you now have, with all its strengths and weaknesses, is the consequence of the life that you’d led.

In other words, because typical boys (men) grow up spending more time doing things that require spatial reasoning (playing with construction toys and video games, participating in sports of different kinds, etc.), they have better spatial reasoning.  Stated differently, the difference in spatial reasoning between boys (men) and girls (women) is a consequence of upbringing, not biology. And that’s why differences emerge as early as preschool.

Fortunately, our brains are “plastic” and can be changed at any age, so that difference can be “overcome” with the right kind of “catching up”. To learn more, let’s begin by noting how psychologists typically measure spatial reasoning using “Mental Rotation” tests [3].

One common example in two dimensions is imaginary paper-folding, as shown here.

More difficult are tests that involve mental rotations in three dimensions, as shown here.

Now returning to the subject of “catching up”, consider one recent study conducted with 60 undergraduate students at an American university [4].

Ten men and ten women were assigned to a control group working with crossword and Sudoku puzzles. The remaining twenty men and twenty women played video games that required driving a motorized vehicle around in a 3D virtual environment using a pair of joysticks (axes and pushbuttons).

Everyone “trained” in two thirty-minute segments spaced two days apart, for a total of just one hour.  And although both men and women in the video gaming group improved their spatial reasoning as measured by the difference between the pre-training and post-training results on the mental rotation tests (the men and women in the control showed no improvement), the women improved much more and so were able to “catch up” to the men.  In other words, there were no statistically significant men vs. women differences in post-training results on the mental rotation tests.

Of course, improvements of any kind will “disappear” without reinforcement. But for girls (women) “playing” at the controls of training simulation and then real heavy equipment, the necessary reinforcement will be automatic, and spatial reasoning will continue to improve as a “natural” part of ongoing skills development.

Luckily, the male advantage in spatial reasoning is “disappearing”, falling from about 50% in 1947 to less than 20% in 1980 (when the data was last studied) [5], and there’s every reason to believe that today, it’s even smaller. And that’s good news for over half the human population!

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[1] “Understanding Expertise: a Multi-Disciplinary Approach”, F. Godet. Macmillan International, 201

[2] “Gender and Our Brains: How Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds”, G. Rippon, Pantheon Books, 2019.

[3] “What does the Mental Rotation Test Measure? An Analysis of Item Difficult and Item Characteristics”, A. Caissie, F. Vigneau, D. Bors, Open Psychology Journal, 2009.

[4] “Training Spatial Skills in Men and Women”, I. Cherney, K. Bersted, J. Smetter, Perceptual & Motor Skills: Learning and Memory, 2014.

[5] “Cognitive Gender Differences are Disappearing”, A. Feingold, American Psychology, Vol. 43, 1988.