You read a lot of stories about how men or women are better at learning. The thing is, sometimes they’re just that – stories and wishful thinking. What we’re going to do in this article is explore what the science has to say on the matter. Is one true or the other? Is it men or women? Or is it only in some areas and not in others?
In that way you’ll know once and for all what we know, where the jury is still out and what are most certainly myths and fables.
The first thing that we need to say is that it’s simply not the case that men or women can learn better across the board. That wouldn’t make evolutionary sense, unless you could think of some evolutionary reason why learning would be less important for men than for women (or the other way around). That’s hard to do, as in our ancestral environment we might not have to learn algebra or additional languages, but there was a lot of other things to learn as well. For example, both men and women had to learn tool making, what foods were safe to eat, how to hunt and childcare, to name but a few.
There is an argument that men’s intelligence could be more varied than women. This idea, called the male variability hypothesis, comes forth from the fact that having boys is more of a gamble than having girls, based on how many children they can have (And those that have more children are evolutionarily speaking more successful as they spread their genes farther).
Why is this? Well, it works as followed.
Some men have a huge number of children. Famously, there are some men that have had 100s and even 1000s of children. Other men, in the meantime, go through life without having any children at all, as no women choose them. This is especially true in polygamous societies, as the more successful men tend to take more wives, leaving fewer women for the less successful ones. And polygamy, though not universal, has been practiced in a lot of societies across history.
For women it’s different. On the one hand, it’s easier for them to have children (men are always willing, after all). On the other hand, they can’t have as many as men. The most children any woman has ever had was 69.
In other words, evolutionarily speaking women are a safer bet. Men, in the meantime, can be wildly successful or not have any children and therefore be an evolutionary dead end. For that reason, it has been hypothesized that there is a mechanism built in by evolution whereby men are more extreme and variable. Of course, there are so many genes and interactions that this variety does not always give the desired results. That’s why on average men aren’t smarter than women. Instead, there are more men that are at the high extremes of intelligence but also many at the low end.
So that's the theory. Do with it what you will.
Of course, though overall it’s unlikely that women or men learn better than men, it is more likely that men and women have areas that they are stronger in. After all, the male and female brain are substantially different. This leads to areas where men on average beat women, while there are also areas where women on average beat men.
Just to be clear that ‘on average’ is very important there. This means that if you take a population then the one sex will do better than the other one. This does not mean that every member of the sex that is better at that task will be better than everybody of the other sex. There will be outliers who can still be much better than the vast majority of the other sex.
So, let’s say that women are better than men at blowing up balloons (I don’t know if they are, this is just an example). That does not mean that the best balloon blower in the world can’t be a man. Yes, it’s less likely, but unlikely things happen all the time. For example, we have only a 1 in 12,000 chance of being hit by lightning in our lifetimes. And yet there is one man, Roy Sullivan, who was hit by lightning seven times.
Got all that? Yeah, it was a bit of a mental gymnastics. Still, it was important. Let’s now discuss in what ways women are better than men and vice versa.
On average, men are better at rotating three-dimensional objects in their heads. This is part of the reason why they’re often considered better at map reading than women are. It also probably helps with such tasks as mechanics and such. Do note that this does not mean men are better navigators than women. This was long thought to be the case, but recently that has been challenged.
How so? Well, somebody correctly reasoned, what if women simply navigate differently from men? After all, the way that men and women had been tested was in a very specific domain, namely map reading. But if women navigate in a different manner, then that has been completely missing from the tests. A more expansive experiment proved that this was indeed the case. Women are more likely to navigate by way of landmarks than by holding a three-dimensional map of the world in their heads. This might actually make them more efficient navigators.
There is a lot of evidence that women learn languages earlier and better than men. They have larger vocabularies, have less trouble learning additional languages, use more complex language constructs and enunciate better. This means that they’re both better at spoken language as well as working for such places as thewordpoint.com, newspapers and books.
Boys don’t like to communicate as much (or at least, they communicate less). They also use language differently. Where women use as an ends in itself, boys use it instrumentally. As in, they use it to get what they want.
If you’ve been paying attention to the literature, you’ll know that having a growth-oriented mindset is better for you, as this leads to you seeing challenges as learning opportunities and try to get better at what you do. If, instead, you see it all as being down to innate ability, then you’re less likely to try harder in order to overcome your weaknesses and also less inclined to overcome challenges. You can read more about this in the book Grit, by the McArthur Genius grant recipient Angela Duckworth.
Here men have the advantage, as they are more likely to have a growth oriented mindset. Fortunately, it’s not all bad news as you can learn to have a more growth oriented mindset as well (as well as to teach it to your children). Mainly it’s about understanding that just because you can’t do something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do something as well as seeing challenges not just as difficult but also as learning experiences.
Theory of mind is the understanding that other people have their own ideas, motivations and reasons for doing things. It starts to develop earlier in girls than it does in boys. What’s more, they get better at it over their lifetimes. This means that they have a better understanding of what other people want and why they want it.
This makes them better at maintaining relationships with other people, sus out what’s really going on and proactively engage in relationships building. This makes them better at working in social environments than men (even if most men don’t seem to think so).
Women score higher on anxiety and are less emotionally stable then men are. This might be the reason that men are often represented as ‘colder’ and ‘more logical’ than men. Note that men do not feel less emotional pain than women do. In fact, men are more likely to so suffer from the separation of parents, which has a higher likelihood to create depression.
It is in adult life that women are more likely to anxious than men and less emotionally stable. This can make certain situations more difficult to deal with and stressful, which might in part explain why women are more likely to avoid some high stress environments that men.
Let me say again, these differences are small. For example, the difference in spatial rotation mentioned above is only a 5 point difference in terms of IQ. That’s a third of a standard deviation, leaving more than enough space for a large section of women to better than the average man at these kinds of things.
In other words, these are probabilities. They’re not destiny. In fact, there is more and more evidence that intelligence is not fixed. Instead, it is variable and plastic right up until the day you die. So, though these kinds of articles are very interesting to read, don’t worry about them too much. For one thing, you might be far above average in any one of these areas (indeed, you might be in all of them). For another, even if you’re not that doesn’t mean you’ll never be.
If there is only one thing that you take away from this article, then please let it be that.
As for the original question, are women better at learning then men, the answer is ‘yes and men are better at learning than women’. And the reason that’s the answer is because learning is domain specific.
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