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February 22, 2002

Battle of the brains

Two studies find men outperform women on general knowledge tests

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

Donna Svennevik, ABC
After Who Wants To Be A Millionaire debuted, host Regis Philbin expressed concern that his show was being dominated by men.
Just a few short months after Who Wants To Be A Millionaire debuted, the quiz show's host, Regis Philbin, delivered a closing monologue lamenting the fact that his show was being dominated by men.

"Can anyone explain this to me?" he asked his massive audience. "Why is it that nearly all of our contestants are white men?"

A couple of new studies just might be able to provide Mr. Philbin with an answer.

Researchers at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, in Northern Ireland, have found that men consistently outperform women in general knowledge tests, even in categories typically thought to favour women, such as fashion. The findings comes from two separate studies involving about 1,500 university students.

The first study, published in a recent issue of the journal Intelligence, showed substantial differences between the sexes. The only category where women beat the men was on Family questions. The second study, due out in the British Journal of Psychology, has similarly controversial results.

Both studies conclude men have a considerable advantage over women when it comes to general knowledge, but not necessarily other measures of intelligence.

The findings provide an interesting counter-point to the current trend of focusing on why boys are doing so poorly in school. They are also part of a new batch of research that is tentatively probing whether there may be biological reasons behind the differences in the way the sexes think. The investigation is tentative, of course, because most researchers are reluctant to be smeared with any kind of biological determinism that suggests men's brains are somehow bigger or better than women's.

"Any piece of research on sex difference has to be placed in an overall context," cautions Dr. Paul Irwing, a psychology professor at the University of Ulster, and a lead researcher in the two studies.

"In the real world, women are increasingly outperforming men. They definitely outperform men at university ... What one has to say then, is that if women are doing better in the real world, why then aren't they doing better on these tests?"

In the history of these kinds of tests, women have never fared well, but that has usually been attributed to a male bias in questions or format. Men typically did better than women in the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale of the 1950s, the granddaddy of these tests, but that test was a short one and so raised the possibility that the small selection of questions chosen just happened to favour male interests.

That is why the Northern Ireland researchers constructed a massive test, 182 questions in all, to measure "all the major domains of what is normally understood to be general knowledge." For the purposes of the survey, they define general knowledge "as culturally valued knowledge, communicated by a range of non-specialist media."

The first sample quizzed 636 undergraduates at the University of Ulster; the second, 1,047 undergraduates. In both cases, considerably more women than men participated in the survey, reflecting the greater number of women in the student body.

The tests cover 19 areas of general knowledge: History of Science, Politics, Sport, History, Classical Music, Popular Music, Jazz and Blues, Art, Literature, General Science, Geography, Cookery, Medicine, Games, Discovery and Exploration, Biology, Film, Fashion and Finance.

Questions ranged from, "Who discovered the double helix structure of DNA?" to "What is parmesan?"

The researchers say the measure of general knowledge incorporated in their study is more systematic and comprehensive than in previous studies, which makes the findings of a male advantage more significant.

"The results of the present study indicate that the higher average scores obtained by males are not due to bias in the questions, but reflect a genuine phenomenon of a tendency of males to possess more general knowledge than females," the study says.

"Considering the total effects of sex on the 19 domains of general knowledge, only with Cookery and Medicine is there an association such that women tend to score significantly higher than men. For scores on Popular music, Film and Fashion, there is no association with sex, while for the remaining 14 domains of general knowledge, there is a tendency for men to score higher than women."

The findings are in keeping with other research. Phillip Ackerman, a psychology professor from the University of Illinois, has studied gender differences in exam performances and on a sample of 18 academic knowledge domains. He consistently found a male advantage "in achievement test performance at the level of post-secondary education."

The Irish researchers have ruled out an explanation of male advantage in terms of fluid intelligence, or innate intelligence, and have also eliminated the idea of a male advantage in verbal ability, since there is no evidence of such an advantage. They also suggest the fact that men did better is probably not due to any bonus in general memory capacity, either, since previous research does not support such a theory.

"We speculate that the overall male advantage is explicable in terms of interests," explains Dr. Irwing. "We are currently researching this, but at present we have no direct evidence of why this is so."

However, the researchers have interesting, and divergent theories to explain the difference between the sexes.

While Dr. Irwing is inclined to consider these differing interests as culturally determined, his co-author, Dr. Richard Lynn, holds the more controversial theory that men are biologically programmed to excel at these quizzes because the subjects involved, particularly Current Affairs and Sport, are closely associated with competing with other males.

Dr. Lynn has been to Ireland what Dr. Philippe Rushton has been to Canada, espousing controversial theories about how the world's gene pool is at risk from highly intelligent people reproducing at a much slower rate than those with less intelligence. Accordingly, Dr. Lynn is not reluctant to offer an evolutionary psychology explanation for the different performances, which suggests "these sex differences in interests are likely to be biologically programmed.

"Males are more concerned with competition with other males for status and power, which are central concerns of our Current Affairs factor and of the Games and Sport components of our Physical Health and Recreation factor. Females are more concerned with nurturance in the family, which are central concerns of our Family factor," he says in his discussion of the study.

Dr. Irwing, however, portrays this difference in interests, and particularly the competitive edge of males, as a modern sort of jousting, whereby typical male culture demands more quiz-readiness than typical female culture.

Either way, they are theories that explain, to some extent, why Mr. Philbin and his cohorts in the quiz-show realm are likely to continue to lament the scarcity of women.



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