Are women really better at remembering words than men?

The researchers also found that the gender of the leading scientists determined the preference for women. Female scientists report a greater gender preference, whereas male scientists report a lower gender preference.

Textbooks and popular science books claim that women are better at finding and remembering words, but is this true?

“Women are better. The female advantage is consistent over time and life expectancy, but it is also relatively small,” says Marko Hirnstein, a professor at the University of Bergen, Norway.

Hirnstein is interested in how biological, psychological, and social variables influence sex and gender differences in cognitive skills, as well as basic brain mechanisms.

Will the results finally put an end to the debate about who is the best?

“So far the focus has been on the abilities in which men excel. However, in recent years, the focus has shifted more towards women,” says Hirnstein.

We thought women were the best – and they are!

The origins of these sex/gender differences; nature versus nurture – and the potential consequences of these differences have become hotly debated in society. Do men and women have different talents for different occupations?

Textbooks and popular science books show that women are better at finding words than men. For example, when identifying nouns that start with the letter “F” or words that fall into a specific category, such as fruits or animals. Also, it has been established as a “fact” that women are better at remembering words.

However, real-world results are much more mixed than the textbooks suggest, with other studies finding a female advantage, some reporting a male advantage, and some finding no advantage at all.

“Most intellectual skills show no or little difference in average performance between men and women. However, in some cases, women are good at it, and in others, men are on average.”

This may seem obvious, but Hirnstein and his colleagues note that their findings could be useful for diagnosis and health care.

Important for the diagnosis of dementia

The results are relevant in at least two ways. First, they help clarify whether the female advantage is real. Second, knowledge of this sex/gender difference is important for interpreting the results of diagnostic assessments in which these abilities are often tested.

For example, to determine if someone has dementia. Knowing that women are generally better at these tasks is critical to preventing women from being underdiagnosed because of their better average baseline performance. And for men: that they are overdiagnosed because of their lower average baseline performance.

Currently, many but not all assessments take gender into account.

The method is the goal

Hirnstein and his colleagues conducted a so-called “meta-analysis,” where they analyzed the combined data of all Ph.D. theses, master’s theses, and research published in academic journals that they could find. This meta-analysis included more than 500 measures from more than 350,000 participants.

Researchers have found that women are actually better. The advantage is small, but stable over the past 50 years and throughout a person’s lifetime.

Moreover, they found that the preference for women depended on the sex/gender of the lead scientist, with female scientists reporting a greater preference for a woman and male scientists reporting a lower preference for a woman.

Reference: “Sex/Gender Differences in Verbal Fluency and Verbal-Episodic Memory: A Meta-Analysis” by Marco Hirnstein, Josephine Stubbs, Angelica Moe, and Markus Hausmann, 22 July 2022. Perspectives of psychological science.
DOI: 10.1177/17456916221082116 Are women really better at remembering words than men?

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