Boys outperform girls in direction-giving accuracy, new study finds

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In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers found that boys aged 3 to 10 years old outperformed girls in accurately giving directions. However, boys and girls did not differ in the number of references to landmarks and turns, suggesting that the quality of direction-giving words, rather than their quantity, is key to explaining these gender differences.

Researchers have long been interested in understanding the individual differences in spatial cognition, particularly between genders. While adult studies have shown that men and women navigate differently — men using cardinal directions more frequently and women relying on landmarks — less is known about how these differences develop in childhood. Understanding these differences in children can have implications for educational strategies and potentially closing the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, where spatial skills play a vital role.

“Our interest in the topic is two-fold. First, exploring how cognitive abilities develop can help us understand the fundamentals of cognitive development, including the types of knowledge children possess and how they acquire it,” explained study author Nardin Yacoub, a PhD candidate at Montclair State University and member of the Spatial Development Lab.

“Also, understanding how cognitive abilities develop and differ between the sexes have potential for real-world implications, such as use in STEM fields. Based on our findings, we can tailor interventions based on the cognitive strengths/weaknesses of boys and girls and design evidence-based training programs to assist in their spatial development. Also, these results can inform parents on how best to support their children’s development of spatial skills.”

The study involved 141 children aged 3 to 10 years. The sample included 78 boys and 63 girls, recruited through schools, professional organizations, and online networks. The study was conducted over Zoom in a session lasting approximately 30 minutes.

The study used four virtual environments, each with a unique layout consisting of five decision points and ten landmarks. These environments were created using Unity 3D software and were presented to children either as maps (providing a survey perspective) or as first-person videos (providing a route perspective). Each environment was designed to be age-appropriate, featuring landmarks like mangoes, teddy bears, and tomatoes.

The procedure was divided into three phases: free description, route description, and route recall. In the free description phase, children described what they saw in the map or video. In the route description phase, children gave directions to a cartoon bird, Mr. Birdie, who was depicted as blindfolded, thus requiring the child to describe the route to him. In the route recall phase, children recalled and described the route from memory after the stimuli were removed.

To ensure the accuracy of their analysis, the researchers used a detailed coding scheme for transcribing and scoring the children’s verbal descriptions. Accuracy was determined by how well the children used directional terms (e.g., left, right) and landmarks to describe the routes. The study employed a double-coding system to maintain inter-rater reliability, with discrepancies resolved through discussions among the researchers.

The researchers found that boys demonstrated superior accuracy in giving directions during the route description phase, but this advantage did not extend to the route recall phase, where boys and girls performed similarly.

“We were surprised to see there were no sex differences in accuracy of recalling routes, but only at the initial stage when children were asked to describe the routes. Both boys and girls have similar abilities in recalling routes, indicating that these differences may be more pronounced in the initial description phase,” Yacoub told PsyPost.

In terms of language use, boys and girls did not differ significantly in the frequency of landmarks and directional terms used. This indicates that the difference in accuracy was not due to boys using more spatial language but rather using it more effectively. In other words, the quality of language, particularly the accurate use of directional terms, explained the boys’ superior performance.

The study also found that older children performed better than younger ones, highlighting an age-related improvement in direction-giving skills. Additionally, children were more accurate and used more directional terms when working with maps compared to videos. This suggests that the survey perspective provided by maps made it easier for children to understand and communicate spatial information.

Despite its robust findings, the study has some limitations. First, it did not consider non-verbal cues like gestures, which children often use to complement their verbal descriptions. Future research could include a more detailed analysis of non-verbal communication. Second, while the study involved a wide age range, younger children (ages 3 and 4) struggled more with the tasks, which might have influenced the overall results. Tailoring the tasks to different developmental stages could yield more nuanced insights.

The study’s findings have practical implications for education. Teaching children to use maps might be a more effective way to improve their direction-giving skills than relying solely on route experiences. Educators and parents can also focus on helping children accurately use direction terms and identify useful landmarks, potentially aiding in their overall spatial development.

Furthermore, understanding these gender differences in spatial skills can contribute to strategies aimed at closing the gender gap in fields requiring strong spatial abilities, such as aviation and engineering. Encouraging both boys and girls to engage in activities that develop these skills from an early age could be beneficial.

“Our long term goals are to create and test effective interventions to enhance spatial cognition in both boys and girls,” Yacoub explained. “Through this line of research, we can provide evidence-based recommendations for educational curricula to support the cognitive development of children. Further longitudinal studies can be conducted to track the development and evolution of spatial skills over time. Pursuing these long-term goals will allow us to contribute significantly to the field of spatial cognition, improving educational outcomes and cognitive development for all children.”

The study, “Sex differences in direction giving: Are boys better than girls?“, was authored by Nardin Yacoub, Laura Lakusta, and Yingying Yang.

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