Sex matters – Guys recognize cars and women recognize birds best

Women are better than men at recognizing living things and men are better than women at recognizing vehicles.

That is the unanticipated result of an analysis Vanderbilt psychologists performed on data from a series of visual recognition tasks collected in the process of developing a new standard test for expertise in object recognition.

“These results aren’t definitive, but they are consistent with the following story,” said Isabel Gauthier. “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…”

“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,” said Professor of Psychology Isabel Gauthier. She directs the lab where post-doctoral fellow Rankin McGugin conducted the study.

“This isn’t the first time that sex differences have been found in perceptual tasks. 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…”

It took the multi-category analysis to reveal that face recognition abilities are correlated to the ability to recognize different object categories for men and women. For example, men who are better at recognizing vehicles also tend to be better at recognizing faces, while women who are better at recognizing living things tend to be better at recognizing faces…

I’m left without an opinion. I haven’t spent any time on the topic because in general I’ve had to confront teaching an individual a particular skill, bit of knowledge, technique. My focus has always been on utilizing existing understanding, countering incorrect – orten ideologically-derived – comprehension.

Now, my curiosity is piqued.

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