Embodied cognition, cognitive strategies, and gender differences in mental rotation performance

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University of New Brunswick


On average, men outperform women on mental rotation tasks. The aim of Article I was to re-examine previous findings in which the magnitude of the male advantage in mental rotation abilities increased when participants mentally rotated occluded versus nonoccluded items, and decreased when participants mentally rotated human figures versus blocks. Mainly, the study aimed to address methodological issues noted on previous human figure mental rotation tests as the block and human figure test items used were likely not equivalent in terms of their cognitive requirements. Results did not support previous research on embodied cognition as mental rotation performance decreased among both men and women when mentally rotating human figures compared to blocks. However, for women, the effect of occlusion was decreased when mentally rotating human figures. Results are discussed in terms of task difficulty and gender differences in confidence and guessing behavior. The aim of Article II was to provide a better understanding of participants reduced accuracy when rotating human figures compared to blocks reported in Article I, and the role of image familiarity, embodied cognition and cognitive strategies on gender differences in performance when rotating blocks and bodies. Two new mental rotation tests were created: one using photographs of real human models positioned as closely as possible to computer drawn figures from the human figures mental rotations test used in Article I, and one using analogous block figures. It was hypothesized that when compared to the analogous blocks, the real human figures would lead to improved accuracy among both men and women, a reduced magnitude of gender differences in accuracy, and a reduced effect of occlusion on women’s accuracy when compared to analogous block figures. The three-way interaction between test, gender and occlusion reported in Article I was not replicated. However, women's scores on the real human figures improved more than men's scores on the real human figures test compared to the block figures test. This finding points to a greater strategy shift among women than men when rotating human figures. Results suggest that individuals struggling with mental rotation may benefit from training that encourages embodied cognition and holistic processing.