Monday, January 15, 2007

Spatial visualization rotation strategy and gender differences

Of all the gender difference research that has focused on human cognitive abilities, one of the most robust differences remaining is in the domain of spatial visualization/mental rotation (Gv:Vz-Visualization).

Within the past few weeks I stumbled across two articles that shed light on possible reasons for gender differences in Gv:Vz. I find this research of particular interest given that I was the member of the WJ III test development team that developed the WJ III Diagnostic Supplement Block Rotation test, which is modeled on the classic Vandenberg Mental Rotations Test

Below are the article references, abstracts and pdf links. The bottom line conclusion from these studies is that a major portion of the difference in male/female performance on mental visual rotation tasks may be due to differences in (a) spatial working memory, and/or (b) the use of different cognitive strategies when approaching the tasks.

Regarding the strategy differences, the Geiser et al. study reinforces what I have heard from clinicians. Apparently some individuals use direct mental rotation strategies (which is the more "pure" mental visualization rotation strategy), others use an analytic feature comparison strategy (more often females), and some folks, typically those that do the best on these type of tasks, flexibly move between both types of strategies. The direct mental rotation strategy is the essence of spatial visualization/rotation ability.

These findings should remind those of us interested in the measurement of cognitive abilities that the primary factor analysis based interpretation for the lion's share of the variance for a specific task (in this case, spatial visualization-Gv:Vz) is based on group statistics...and likely represents the primary interpretation for performance on the measure. However, as all astute intelligence test clinicians know, some individuals often "turn the tables" on the presented task and change the nature of the abilities measured.

Geiser, C., Lehmnann, W. & Eid, M. (2006). Separating “Rotators” From “Nonrotators” in the Mental Rotations Test: A Multigroup Latent Class Analysis. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 41(3), 261–293 (click here to view)

  • Items of mental rotation tests can not only be solved by mental rotation but also by other solution strategies. A multigroup latent class analysis of 24 items of the Mental Rotations Test (MRT) was conducted in a sample of 1,695 German pupils and students to find out how many solution strategies can be identified for the items of this test. The results showed that five subgroups (latent classes) can be distinguished. Although three of the subgroups differ mainly in the number of items reached, one class shows are very low performance. In another class, a special solution strategy is used. This strategy seems to involve analytic rather than mental rotation processes and is efficient only for a specialMRT item type, indicating that not all MRT items require a mental rotation approach. In addition, the multigroup analysis revealed significant sex differences with respect to the class assignment, confirming prior findings that on average male participants perform mental rotation tasks faster and better than female participants. Females were also overrepresented in the analytic strategy class. The results are discussed with respect to psychometric and substantive implications, and suggestions for the optimization of the MRT items are provided.

Kaufman, S. (in press). Sex differences in mental rotation and spatial visualization ability: Can they be accounted for by differences in working memory capacity? Intelligence. (click here to view)

  • Sex differences in spatial ability are well documented, but poorly understood. In order to see whether working memory is an important factor in these differences, 50 males and 50 females performed tests of three-dimensional mental rotation and spatial visualization, along with tests of spatial and verbal working memory. Substantial differences were found on all spatial ability and spatial working memory tests (that included both a spatial and verbal processing component). No significant differences were found in spatial short-term memory or verbal working memory. In addition, spatial working memory completely mediated the relationship between sex and spatial ability, but there was also a direct effect of sex on the unique variance in three-dimensional rotation ability, and this effect was not mediated by spatial working memory. Results are discussed in the context of research on working memory and intelligence in general, and sex differences in spatial ability more specifically.

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