BIOPSYCHOSOCIAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO COGNITIVE PERFORMANCE*

Diane F. Halpern

Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children

Claremont McKenna College

Abstract

Females and males are both similar and different in their cognitive performance. There is no evidence to support claims for a smarter sex. Males and females have different average scores on different cognitive measures; some show an advantage for females and others show an advantage for males. Females are achieving at higher rates in school at all levels and in all subjects, including subjects in which they obtain lower scores on aptitude/ability tests (e.g., advanced mathematics). Although there is much overlap in the female and male distributions, on average, females excel on many memory tasks including memory for objects and location, episodic memory, reading literacy, speech fluency, and writing. Males excel at visuospatial transformations, especially mental rotation, science achievement, mathematics tests that are not tied to a specified curriculum (possibly due to use of novel visuospatial representations and transformations), and males are more variable on many cognitive tests. A biopsychosocial model that recognizes the reciprocal relationships among many types of variables is used as an explanatory framework.

There have been remarkable changes in the lives of women and men in the blink of history that was the 20th century. College enrollments went from consisting largely of men from the privileged classes near the start of the 20th century to men from all socioeconomic classes and literally, all stripes, as they returned from World War II near mid-century. College enrollments for women at the same time consisted mostly of women of privilege, or exceptional talent, or high moti-

*

Paper presented at the National Academies Convocation on Maximizing the Success of Women in Science and Engineering: Biological, Social, and Organizational Components of Success, held December 9, 2005 in Washington, DC.Some authors prefer to use the term “gender” when referring to female and male differences that are social in origin and “sex” when referring to differences that are biological in origin. In keeping with the biopsychsocial model that is advocated in this paper and the belief that these two types of influences are interdependent and cannot be separated, only one term is used in this chapter. “Sex” is used without reference to the origin of any observed differences or similarities and is not meant to imply a preference for biological explanations. These terms are often used inconsistently in the literature.



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