Are women really better at finding and remembering words than men?

No, my wife didn’t help me write this post. But maybe it would have been a good idea? A new meta-analysis wants to settle the score once and for all: Are women really better at finding and remembering words than men? The answer? “Women are better. The female advantage is consistent across time and life span, but it is also relatively small,” says Marco Hirnstein, professor at The University of Bergen, Norway. If you want to know more, do read on.

From the press release:

Hirnstein is interested in how biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to sex/gender differences in cognitive abilities and what the underlying brain mechanisms are.

Will the results finally settle pub debates on who’s better?

“So far, the focus has mostly been on abilities, in which men excel. However, in recent years the focus has shifted more towards women,” says Hirnstein.

We thought Women were better — and they are!

The origin of these sex/gender differences; nature versus nurture — and the potential consequences of these differences have been the subject of big societal debates. As in do men and women have different talents for different professions?

Textbooks and popular science books take it for granted that women are better at finding words. For example, when naming words that begin with the letter “F,” or words that belong to a certain category like animals or fruits. It has also been considered “fact” that women are better at remembering words.

Yet, the actual findings are much more inconsistent than textbooks imply: Some studies find a female advantage, some find a male advantage, some do not find any advantage.

“Most intellectual skills show no or negligible differences in average performance between men and women. However, women excel in some tasks, while men excel in others on average.”

This might sound like stating the obvious, but Hirnstein and his colleagues point out how their findings can be useful in diagnosis and in health care.

Critical relevance for the diagnosis of dementia

The results are relevant in at least two ways. First, they help to clarify whether the female advantage is real. Second, knowing about this sex/gender difference is important for interpreting the results of diagnostic assessments, in which those abilities are frequently tested.

For example, to determine whether somebody has dementia. Knowing that women are generally better in those tasks is critical to prevent that women are under-diagnosed, due to their better average, baseline performance. And for men: That they are over-diagnosed, due to their lower average baseline performance.

Currently, many but not all assessments take sex/gender into account.

The Method is Meta

Hirnstein and his colleagues conducted a so-called “meta-analysis,” where they analyzed the combined data of all PhD theses, master theses, and studies published in scientific journals they could find. This meta-analysis encompassed more than 500 measures from more than 350,000 participants.

The researchers found that women are indeed better. The advantage is small but consistent across the last 50 years and across an individual’s lifespan.

Moreover, they found that the female advantage depends on the sex/gender of the leading scientist: Female scientists report a larger female advantage, male scientists report a smaller female advantage.

Abstract of the study:
Women are thought to fare better in verbal abilities, especially in verbal-fluency and verbal-memory tasks. However, the last meta-analysis on sex/gender differences in verbal fluency dates from 1988. Although verbal memory has only recently been investigated meta-analytically, a comprehensive meta-analysis is lacking that focuses on verbal memory as it is typically assessed, for example, in neuropsychological settings. On the basis of 496 effect sizes and 355,173 participants, in the current meta-analysis, we found that women/girls outperformed men/boys in phonemic fluency (ds = 0.12–0.13) but not in semantic fluency (ds = 0.01–0.02), for which the sex/gender difference appeared to be category-dependent. Women/girls also outperformed men/boys in recall (d = 0.28) and recognition (ds = 0.12–0.17). Although effect sizes are small, the female advantage was relatively stable over the past 50 years and across lifetime. Published articles reported stronger female advantages than unpublished studies, and first authors reported better performance for members of their own sex/gender. We conclude that a small female advantage in phonemic fluency, recall, and recognition exists and is partly subject to publication bias. Considerable variance suggests further contributing factors, such as participants’ language and country/region.

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