How Sex Differences affect Cognitive Abilities?



Sex differences in cognition, or mental abilities, are widely studied in the current scientific literature. Biological and genetic differences in combination with environment and culture have resulted in the cognitive differences among men and women. Let us see how these sex differences affect cognitive abilities.

Among biological factors, hormones such as testosterone and estrogen may play some role mediating these differences. Among differences of diverse mental and cognitive abilities, the largest or most well-known are those relating to spatial abilities, social cognition, verbal skills and abilities.

Cognitive abilities are mental abilities that a person uses in everyday life, as well as specific demand tasks. The most basic of these abilities are memory, executive function, processing speed and perception, which combine to form a larger perceptual umbrella.  Relating to different social, affective, verbal and spatial information.

Memory, which is one of the primary core of cognitive abilities can be broken down into sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Moreover, there are also other abilities relating to perceptual information such as mental rotation, spatial visualization ability, verbal fluency and reading comprehension.

Sex differences in Processing Speed

Studies published in the journal Intelligence have found faster processing speed in women.

For example, a 2006 study published in Intelligence by researcher Stephen Camarata and Richard Woodcock found faster processing speed in females across all age groups in a sample of 4,213 participants.

This was followed by another study published in 2008 by researchers Timothy Z Keith and Matthew R. Reynolds who found faster processing speed in females from ages 6 to 89 years old. The sample also had a number of 8,818 participants. Other studies by Keith have also found faster processing speed in females from ages 5 to 17.

Sex differences in Semantic Perception

Studies of semantic perception (attribution of meaning) of words reported that males conceptualize items in terms of physical or observable attributes whereas females use more evaluative concepts.

Another study of young adults in three cultures showed significant sex differences in semantic perception (attribution of meaning) of most common and abstract words.

Contrary to common beliefs, women gave more negative scores to the concepts describing sensational objects, social and physical attractors but more positive estimations to work- and reality-related words, in comparison to men. This suggests that men favor concepts related to extreme experience and women favor concepts related to predictable and controllable routines.

Sex differences in Spatial Abilities

Males have much higher level of performance in major spatial tasks which include spatial visualization. Those tasks are – spatial perception and mental rotation.

Even though most spatial abilities are higher in men, object location memory is an exception. In fact, the ability to memorize spatial cues involving categorical relations are higher in women. These studies show how sex differences affect cognitive abilities..

Sex differences in Verbal Abilities

There is a clear higher female performance on a number of verbal tasks. Prominently a higher level of performance in speech production which reaches a deviation of 0.33.

Further, a higher performance in writing. Studies have also found greater female performance in phonological processing, identifying alphabetical sequences, and word fluency tasks. Studies, in addition, say females outperform males in verbal learning.

Social Cognition

Current literature suggests women have higher level of social cognition. A 2012 review published in the journal Neuropsychologia found that women are better at recognizing facial effects, expression processing and emotions in general.

Men were only better at recognizing specific behavior which includes anger, aggression and threatening cues. A 2012 study published in the journal Neuropsychology with a sample of 3,500 individuals from ages 8–21, found that females outperformed males on face memory and all social cognition tests.

In 2014, another study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that females had larger activity in the right temporal cortex. It is an essential core of the social brain connected to perception and understanding the social behavior of others such as intentions, emotions, and expectations.

Studies have also found males to be slower in making social judgments than females. Structural studies with MRI neuro-imaging has also shown that women have bigger regional grey matter volumes in a number of regions related to social information processing including the Inferior frontal cortex and bigger cortical folding in the Inferior frontal cortex and parietal cortex.

Researchers suppose that these sex differences in social cognition predisposes males to high rates of autism spectrum disorders which is characterized by lower social cognition.


Empathy is a large part of social cognition and facilitates its cognitive components known as theory of mind. Current literature suggests a higher level of empathy in woman compared to men.

However, reviews, meta-analysis, studies of physiological measures, behavioral tests, and brain neuro-imaging revealed mixed findings. Whereas experimental and neuro-psychological measures show no reliable sex effect, self-report data consistently indicates greater empathy in females.

The research from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience compared age-related sex differences in both self-report and neurophysiological measures of empathic arousal in sixty-five 4–17-year-old children. Self-report indicated greater response by females, which increased with age. Whereas, implicit hemodynamic and physiological measures did not demonstrate any gender-related patterns.

In short, we can conclude that there are some genetic and environmental factors that makes sex differences affect an individual’s cognitive abilities.


  • Galloti, K. M. (2004). Cognitive psychology in and out of the laboratory. USA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Matlin, M. (1994). Cognition. Bangalore: Harcourt Brace Pub.
  • Anderson, J. R. (2015). Cognitive psychology and its implications. New York: Worth Publishers

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