Chapter 2 – Difference in language skills
2008/06/29 § Leave a comment
Verbal skill differences between male and females
The topic of verbal and also maths skill differences is somewhat the wholly grail of the arguments you can hear and read about as soon as some people start talking about “mental” differences in the two main sexes. Hence a lot has been written on the subject. Obviously some doubted that there is a difference while others advocated the studies that support the idea that girls and women have an advantage in acquirement and usage of language.
While researchers seem to have agreed that there are differences in how language is processed in boys and girls it was only recently that they examined the underlying reason for it.. It appears that the way in which the brain handles verbal information is different in men and women. This is far more crucial than the actual differences, because they are seemingly small. In fact, it is not even certain if there is any real difference. Even though it is often claimed to be a fact that women are “better” in handling language not much evidence for it can be found outside of the usual urban myths environment [Table 1).
In fact, when we look at measurements of verbal ability it becomes obvious quickly that it all depends on the measurement one has the subjects perform. However, interestingly there always is a difference in where in the brain the task is processed, even if there is no mathematical difference.
The differences scientists tend to look at initially are usually the ones that can be quantified mathematically. It is a reasonable idea to check for quantifiable differences of course. However, when it comes to verbal abilities the picture is more complex and arguably much more interesting than a difference in scores in some test.
When looking at children’s’ brain when processing language researchers found that the activation of parts of the brain that process words are much more active in girls than in boys. And while the performance accuracy in tests correlated with activation of the “language” parts of the brain this was not the case in boys.
In boys the performance accuracy amazingly enough rather depended on how hard the “visual” parts of the brain were working, when reading tests were performed. When performing listening based language tests boys’ auditory brain regions were most active. While the scientists are trying to explain the meaning of all this, the reasons are not easily determined. Going for the evolutionary explanation is the usual shot in the dark they attempt.
Naturally they put the finding in contest to our ancestors assumed “hunter, gatherer” context. The article says that this system of processing “verbal” information gives an advantage in that it enables men to more quickly recognize and respond to auditory impulses that could mean danger.
Statements like this are wrong on so many levels, it is painful to hear them repeatedly. The reason for explanations like this to be so popular simply is, that when talking about a trait in an evolutionary perspective it is easy to make up a scenario that fits the trait. This is called ad hoc explanation and is the worst thing a scientist can do, since there simply is no science to it. Ad hoc means that I alter my hypothesis continuously in order to make it fit the reality. Similar to what dogmatic religious people do when they make their interpretations fit reality, no matter how reality opposes their original assumption.
The reason the evolutionary cheap-shot fails so terribly is that these traits must have developed long before our ancestors’ hunter past. Additionally, often enough we can observe that the same differences exist in animals that are distantly related to us. While it is rather common for two species to develop similar solutions to a problem it is unlikely that two species develop the same differences in order to respond to different circumstances. A great example for this is pain perception.
It is a well-established fact amongst researcher in the field of pain perception that men can stand more pain, both by intensity as well as by duration, than women. This is also universally true in other mammals and even other vertebrates and basically almost universally amongst all living creatures.
Assume for a second a scientist would only look at pain perception in humans and find this difference. It would be easy to assume that this difference has developed in order to make minor injuries more bearable for the hunter. By being able to fade-out the sensation of pain it would have been possible for the hunter to much better concentrate on his target. Ultimately the hunters who have the lowest pain perception would have the best survival chance because they would have caught the most pray.
While I am not saying that this might have indeed been a amplifying factor in pain perception development in humans (after all this hypothesis is just too neat to discard it, yet) it would not account for the lower pain perception in the male animal that just became the evening dinner of the pre-historic hunter.
Other reasons are far more likely in explaining why males of the world’s species’ bear pain better than the females.
By the way, if you now think about women and birth labour- don’t. It is an old yet absurdly irrelevant thought. Often you hear someone say something like, “if men had to give birth they would die from the pain (science has proven)”. The statement in parenthesis is optional but commonly used to emphasize the importance of an otherwise useless and utterly wrong claim.
The truth is, if it were true that anyone could die from the pain during childbirth, then women who had to give birth would die from the pain too. Firstly no one dies from pain in itself. Secondly, nature prepares women to better cope with the pain just before and during labour by expressing self-made painkillers. When we look into the action of testosterone we will revisit this question.
But for now, we were still wondering about the differential perception of the spoke word in the sexes.
Since 1901 a test including language and mathematical ability testing is being performed on a yearly basis in the USA. The test is called Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and is used to decide about students’ admission to college. Men have performed better than women in verbal and mathematical tasks over all this time. Hence in 1994 the test was altered in order to help women achieve better scores.
The argument for this being that the test was skewing the results. The makers of the test might unconsciously have biased the test towards male interest. This is a fair possibility, considering that in the beginning only men performed the test since women were not permitted to study in the first place.
The SAT Approximately 1.3 million high school students annually take the Educational Testing Service’s SAT I, America’s oldest and most widely used college entrance exam. It is composed of two sections, Verbal and Math, each scored on a 200-800 point scale. Test questions are almost exclusively multiple-choice; a few “student-produced response” questions require the student to “grid in” the answer.
The SAT I is designed solely to predict students’ first year college grades. Yet, despite the fact that females earn higher grades throughout both high school and college, they consistently receive lower scores on the exam than do their male counterparts. In 2001, females averaged 35 points lower than males on the Math section of the test, and 3 points lower on the Verbal section.
However, following adjustments in 1994 it initially looked as if women were catching up. Yet, the following years showed that this was not a trend but rather a one time event [Figure 1]. Naturally, many people ranging from scientist to committees who’s job it is to make sure that all people become clone-like equals have wondered about the reasons and implications for this. So far the difference remains, though one has to keep in mind that this difference has remained very small over the last years. A difference of some 3 points out of around 500 is hardly a dramatic difference.
However, the difference in the mathematical tests is huge in comparison. It has been argued that at least for the mathematical tests girls were influenced by their parents not to concentrate on maths too much. Even though this is an argument that absolutely always comes up in discussions about this type of performance difference it is still insanely untrue.
It is funny that it was reported already in 1986 that parents did not seem to have an impact on their children in the way claimed, however, this does not stop any radical gender-ideologist from perpetually blaming the parents for differences in SAT performance.
The conclusion of the article mentioned cannot satisfy any gender-ideologist of course: “On the other hand, says Benbow, biological traits such as left-handedness and susceptibility to allergies are associated with mathematical and verbal precocity. She suggests these traits may be fostered in part by overexposure of a fetus to the hormone testosterone, which some scientists say enhances the brain’s right-hemisphere development and improves communication between hemispheres; this, in turn, may aid in the comprehension of mathematics and relationships between difficult words.”
Certainly it remains startling then why so many claim that girls are better in language skills and yet they under-perform year after year. The National center for fair and open testing in the USA believes that the reasons are hard to isolate, yet has some ideas what could contribute.
In several instances it has been shown that the multiple-choice format does support boys more than girls. Repeatedly girls do worse on test with clear multiple choices than on assay like tests.
Figure 1: SAT scores in recent years
The Educational Testing Service and the College Board claims: “The better relative performance of females on constructed-response tests has important implications for high-stakes standardized testing… If both types of tests measure important education outcomes, equity concerns would dictate a mix of the two types of assessment instruments.”
Now, whether this is true or not, it is startling that the format of the test should have such a strong influence on performance. Could that be because girls and boys, men and women process the verbal information in the test differently?
The test is constructed in a way that allows guessing but it should in theory be punished by a deduction of a quarter of a point for each wrong answer. Due to the possibility to often exclude some answers without being sure about the right answer, the chance of guessing right can be increased though. It now appears that boys are utilizing this possibility more often than girls.
It leaves us wondering if girls more often than not have not had the simple mathematical skills required detecting this possibility or if they are more hesitant when it comes to risk taking?
It seems more reasonable to me to assume the latter. And we are going to investigate the risk taking behaviour of the sexes later on. Then we might figure out that this might be a fair point, even if it is not sufficient to explain all the differences in SAT or similar testings.
Another argument being made is, that the test requires “speededness”. Exposing students to time pressure has repeatedly been shown to be disadvantageous for girls. Boys appear to perform better under time-pressure and highly competitive situations.
This would in turn explain why the very girl who performs better than her peers at school in a classroom context fails to perform better than the same peers in competitive test situations.
Another possibility obviously being, girls get a bonus for behaving quieter and more controlled at school. It has been shown that teacher reward good behaviour with better grades even if the louder (often male) student shows the same performance.
A fair argument being made is also that ethnic and social background plays a role in test results. This has been shown not just for the gender-issue but independently for many instances where individuals from weaker social backgrounds perform worse than the typical white, rich and male.
However, Federal District Judge Walker, said in a 1989 decision barring New York’s use of SAT scores alone to award scholarships, that “…under the most conservative studies presented in evidence, even after removing the effect of [factors such as ethnicity, parental education, high school classes, and proposed college major], at least a 30 point combined differential [out of approximately 60 points] remains unexplained.”
And most startling, twice as many males as females achieve SAT scores over 700. If the scoring gap were caused solely by the larger pool of females taking the exam, females should still attain the same percentage of high scores as males. In fact, the opposite is true: the gender gap is largest in the highest score ranges.
So, maybe males are simply smarter than females? Or maybe there are statistical reasons for this? As we have seen above, the distribution of the individuals being over- or under-achiever is crucial. It seems that we are looking at a different distribution for male and female students, with a larger spread of testing results in the group of males.
Verbal fluency differences
While we were looking at differences in written language tests until now one must admit that language hardly originated in the written word. Obviously, language derived from verbal communication and it is interesting to see what tests based on actually “talking” result in when testing men and women and other genders.
Women obtain better scores than men on most verbal memory tasks. This appears to be true whether the material is a list of words or a meaningful passage, it appears from childhood to old age and has been found across ethnic groups (for reviews see Herlitz, Nilsson & Bäckman, 1997; Kimura, 1999). One possible interpretation of this finding is that women are better able to evoke the corresponding image from the verbal stimulus (Harshman & Paivio, 1987). In that case, one might expect that women would have a particular advantage for concrete words. A recent study compared recall of concrete and abstract words (Herlitz, Airaksinen & Nordström, 1999), but the presentation of words was visual and thus could not be readily compared to other studies, nearly all of which have employed oral presentation.
As one study points out: Although both word fluency and ideational fluency are said to show female superiority, a significant difference in favor of females could be found only in the task which primarily requires lexical access and not in the task requiring mental access to color and form of objects.
But not all agree that there is a female advantage, again differences seem to be small if existing at all at most times. A group of researchers from Brazil analyzed the influence of education, gender and age on scores in a verbal fluency test using the animal category, and on number of categories, clustering and switching. They examined 257 healthy participants (152 females and 105 males) with a mean age of 49.42 years (SD = 15.75) and having a mean educational level of 5.58 (SD = 4.25) years. Subjects were asked to name as many animals as they could. No significant effect of gender was observed for any of the measures.
Nevertheless, it seems that most find some differences. And some studies have realized that the reason for not always finding a difference might be that not always “male” and “female” brains were compared. What this means is, that recent research indicates that the brain development is controlled by hormones that we are expose to before and after birth. A genetic female can end up with a “male” performing brain. A side effect however, might be that sexual orientation also is controlled by this hormone exposure.
Hence one example study that studied homosexual males and females with heterosexuals found, that results of lesbians resemble language fluency found in males. For letter fluency, gay men outperformed all other groups; lesbians showed the lowest scores.
The effect of hormones on brain development is a highly interesting one and a heavy anti-argument against the “nurture-lobbyists”. But it is too complex to be discussed now, I save it for a later chapter.
That was a lot about talking and language. Talking much is a typical female domain, or is it not? Recent research indicates it depends. While a recent Gallup poll says most men and women believe this stereotype, research shows that we are equals in the amount of words spoken per day [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071108171518.htm].
If anything men might talk a bit more!
BUT! It seems that men talked more to strangers and women more to people they are close to. This might give us a hint, why we got the stereotype in the first place. Within the family context the genders talk equally much, in accordance to research. Maybe men are more talkative when it counts to convince someone, while women seem to talk when it affirms a relationship (by demonstrating attention to the opponent). Hence maybe the old stereotype that men do not listen. They do not in the same “active” way as women do it seems…
However, summarizing we can say: while men and women do not show significant differences in there abilities, there is a difference in how they process the verbal tasks it seems.
Why would that be so? Cautious when you are having a spontaneous urge to argue with evolution. Though evolution naturally has to do with there differences no one has so far proven that these differences in processing have derived specifically for language. It is an advantage to process verbal information bi-laterally (as women tend to do more than men), e.g. if you have a lateral brain injury. You simply do not lose all your verbal capacity immediately. This has been seen e.g. in stroke patients, where repeatedly women have an advantage in recovering their verbal faculties. However, it is hard to imagine this being the evolutionary reason for the different processing strategies of female versus male brains.
It is entirely possible and reasonable to also consider the possibility, that the brain evolved to process information differently for entirely other reasons than language. It is reasonable to believe that (especially considering that language is a rather recent invention in the human development) that the “verbal laterality ” is a mere accident.
There is indirect or correlative prove for this hypothesis. And it comes in with the fact that there is another realm in which males are the undisputed rulers: i.e. spatial processing.
We are going to look at mental rotation tasks and also mathematical skills which seem to correlate with these abilities somewhere.
“It is an article of passionate faith among “politically correct” biologists and anthropologists that brain size has no connection with intelligence; that intelligence has nothing to do with genes; and that genes are probably nasty fascist things anyway.”
Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and Britain’s number one intellectual