Cognitive Gender Differences: Are Women More Efficient Thinkers?

March 14, 2013
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cognitive differenceScientists have puzzled over cognitive differences between men and women for at least 100 years. And the results of their work support the reality that should be on the minds of everyone working in healthcare; one size doesn’t fit all.

cognitive differenceScientists have puzzled over cognitive differences between men and women for at least 100 years. And the results of their work support the reality that should be on the minds of everyone working in healthcare; one size doesn’t fit all.

Researchers in Madrid and at UCLA recently tested men and women on cognitive tasks, including spatial reasoning, inductive reasoning, keeping track of tasks, and attention to numbers. Women, although they have smaller brains ­– and most importantly because of its role in memory, emotion and reason – a smaller hippocampus than men, ­­­were nonetheless better able to handle most of these tasks (except spatial), while showing less brain activity on an MRI. Thus, women require less neural material (and energy) to perform cognitive tasks on an equal level with men.

If this study holds up (other studies also point to significant cognitive differences between the sexes), its results may and should have an impact on healthcare innovation and service delivery. For example:

  • At our firm we are very aware of the increased importance of the consumer in healthcare decision making. The way health information is processed by that consumer is very important. This has implications for both the device and the service interface.  A consumer-focused device may be intuitive to one person, but baffling to another.
  • One particularly strong area for women was in ranking and numerical tasks. New diagnostic tests often produce information that isn’t binary, but probabilistic. In this case, women might have an easier time knowing how to evaluate this information and make choices.
  • On the other hand, men appeared to be much better at processing spatial information. This could play into the design of three-dimensional imaging technology, or even smartphone apps and videos.

A big question remains from studies like these; are these traits genetically wired, or more consistent with the way men and women have been trained to think? Perhaps, as Shakespeare showed us 500 years ago, things are more complicated; when Cleopatra’s complexity contrasts to Mark Antony’s hard reason, was that genetic or just the English writer’s perception of life in ancient Rome and Egypt? If it’s nature, then innovation needs to address these differences. If it’s nurture, then a wide range of other cultural differences need to be recognized.