Confidence mediates the sex difference in mental rotation performance.
ABSTRACT On tasks that require the mental rotation of 3-dimensional figures, males typically exhibit higher accuracy than females. Using the most common measure of mental rotation (i.e., the Mental Rotations Test), we investigated whether individual variability in confidence mediates this sex difference in mental rotation performance. In each of four experiments, the sex difference was reliably elicited and eliminated by controlling or manipulating participants' confidence. Specifically, confidence predicted performance within and between sexes (Experiment 1), rendering confidence irrelevant to the task reliably eliminated the sex difference in performance (Experiments 2 and 3), and manipulating confidence significantly affected performance (Experiment 4). Thus, confidence mediates the sex difference in mental rotation performance and hence the sex difference appears to be a difference of performance rather than ability. Results are discussed in relation to other potential mediators and mechanisms, such as gender roles, sex stereotypes, spatial experience, rotation strategies, working memory, and spatial attention.
- SourceAvailable from: David H. Uttal[Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Although neglected in traditional education, spatial thinking plays a critical role in achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We review this relationship and investigate the malleability of spatial thinking. Can spatial thinking be improved with training, life experience, or educational interventions? Can improving spatial thinking improve STEM achievement? Research indicates that the answer is “yes” to both questions. A recent quantitative synthesis of 206 spatial training studies found an average training improvement of 0.47 standard deviations. Training effects lasted for months in studies examining durability and transferred to tasks that differed at least moderately from training tasks. A few studies indicate that spatial training can improve STEM learning, although more research needs to be done on this issue. We argue that including spatial thinking in STEM curricula could substantially increase the number of Americans with the requisite cognitive skills to enter STEM careers.Current Directions in Psychological Science 10/2013; 22(5):367-373. · 3.93 Impact Factor
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Confidence Mediates the Sex Difference in Mental Rotation
Zachary Estes•Sydney Felker
Received: 5 March 2011/Revised: 29 September 2011/Accepted: 1 October 2011/Published online: 1 December 2011
? Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
dimensional figures, males typically exhibit higher accuracy
individual variability in confidence mediates this sex differ-
ence in mental rotation performance. In each of four experi-
ments, the sex difference was reliably elicited and eliminated
ically, confidence predicted performance within and between
reliably eliminated the sex difference in performance (Experi-
ments 2 and 3), and manipulating confidence significantly
affected performance (Experiment 4). Thus, confidence medi-
the sex difference appears to be a difference of performance
rather thanability. Results are discussed inrelationto other
potential mediators and mechanisms, such as gender roles,
sex stereotypes, spatial experience, rotation strategies, work-
ing memory, and spatial attention.
On tasks that require the mental rotation of 3-
Sex differences ? Spatial abilities ? Stereotype threat and lift
Confidence ? Gender roles ? Mental rotation ?
Of all cognitive sex differences, the mental rotation of abstract
Females typically respond less accurately and more slowly on
mental rotation tasks than do males (Lippa, Collaer, & Peters,
2010; Lohman, 1986; Maylor et al., 2007; Peters, 2005; Voyer,
Voyer, & Bryden, 1995), though the variability within each sex
is greater than the difference between sexes (Kail, Carter, &
medium effect size of this sex difference in mental rotation
across age groups (Cohen’s d=.73, Linn & Petersen, 1985)
and among adults more specifically (d=.66, Voyer et al.,
1995). The single largest study of mental rotation (N=
255,100) also revealed a medium effect (d=.53, Peters,
and the magnitude of the sex difference, it likely has multi-
ple causes or mediators. Purely biological explanations (for
review, see Kimura, 1999) have received little empirical sup-
port, with no clear relationship between mental rotation abil-
ity and endogenous levels of sex hormones either prenatally
Abrahams, 2004) or in adulthood (Halari et al., 2005). More-
preclude mediation of performance by sociocognitive factors
(e.g., Casey, 1996; Levine, Vasilyeva, Lourenco, Newcombe,
& Huttenlocher, 2005). Here, we examined whether one such
uted to this sex difference in mental rotation performance.
tal rotation performance has received little empirical attention,
threat provides a rich source of supportive evidence.
Z. Estes (&)
Department of Marketing, Bocconi University, Via Roentgen 1,
20136 Milan, Italy
Center, Athens, GA, USA
Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570
Sex Stereotype Effects
Gender role beliefs and traits may partially explain the sex dif-
ference in mental rotation performance. Individuals who hold
typical behaviors might believe in the common stereotype that
men are superior to women at spatial skills. This belief might
then induce or accentuate the sex difference in mental rotation
performance. Indeed, people are generally aware of the ste-
ities than males and, in fact, nearly half of all females endorse
imagine themselves as a stereotypical male than as a stereo-
typical female (d=.56, Ortner & Sieverding, 2008) and, more
generally, mental rotation ability is associated with more mas-
Signorella, Jamison, & Krupa, 1989). Performance on spatial
tasks thus is clearly related to gender role beliefs and traits.
Mental rotation performance may also be affected by mere
awareness of, rather than belief in, the stereotype that men are
dency for members of a negatively stereotyped group to un-
derperform on tasks relevant to the stereotype (e.g., Steele,
2003; Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008). In this case, the ste-
reotype that women have poor spatial skills could induce ste-
mental rotation performance that may or may not occur other-
wise.McGlone andAronson(2006) directlytestedwhether
participants answered questions about their gender. If stereo-
type threat affects mental rotation performance, then the sex
difference should be observed in this condition. Other partici-
pants answered questions about attending a private university.
ment, should attenuate the sex difference in mental rotation.
These predictions were supported. In fact, females performed
better when identified as a‘‘private college student’’than when
allowed them to perform to their potential. In contrast, males
performed better when identified as a male than as a private
case, the stereotype that men are superior at spatial tasks may
bolster their confidence and subsequently improve their perfor-
and finally they had those same participants complete another
(d=.35).Conversely,men performed significantly better after
being told that men were better at the task (d=.80) and sig-
nificantly worse after being told that women were better (d=
.78; see also Wraga, Duncan, Jacobs, Helt, & Church, 2006).
Massa, Mayer, and Bohon (2005) also manipulated the sex
stereotype, and additionally examined its interaction with gen-
that it measured spatial skills than when told that it measured
beliefs scored higher when told that it measured empathy than
whentoldthat it measuredspatial skills (d=1.31).Lippa et al.
(2010) examined mental rotation and line angle judgments
across 53 nations that varied in egalitarianism. Males outper-
formed females in every nation in both mental rotation (mean
surprisingly, these sex differences were larger in highly egali-
tarian nations (e.g., Norway) than in less egalitarian nations
(e.g., Pakistan; mental rotation r=?.47; line angle r=?.41).
Lippa et al. attributed this finding to greater awareness of sex
stereotypes and/or greater susceptibility to stereotype threat in
egalitarian nations. So, in summary, beliefs about and aware-
ness of sex stereotypes are both related to the sex difference in
mental rotation performance. But how exactly might sex ste-
reotypes affect performance?
Confidence as a Potential Mediator
Much of the research on gender role and sex stereotype effects
assumes confidence as a potential cognitive mechanism by
self-efficacy, and self-confidence. Walton and Cohen (2003)
similarly explained stereotype lift thus:‘‘By comparing them-
elevation in their self-efficacy…[which] may be important to
maintaining confidence and motivation’’(p. 456). The belief
may well affect one’s confidence when approaching that task
and this effect on confidence may have cascading effects on
558Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570
(e.g., Schmader et al., 2008), which ultimately would affect
In their seminal study, Steele and Aronson (1995) demon-
strated that describing a difficult verbal test as diagnostic of
intellectual ability significantly increased self-doubt and
decreased performance among Black students but not among
White students. Stereotype threat also increased negative per-
formance-related thoughts among women, and these negative
& McConnell, 2007; Cadinu, Maass, Rosabianca, & Kiesner,
2005; Schmader, Forbes, Zhang, & Mendes, 2009). And, con-
doubt, negative thoughts, and self-affirmation are closely rela-
ted to the more general construct of confidence. Thus, sex ste-
tasks indirectly, partially by influencing participants’ con-
fidence. We therefore tested whether confidence mediated
mental rotation performance.
& Bowden, 1997; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974) and on mental
2007; see also Pallier, 2003). Moreover, because confidence is
gauged before the judgment is made (Baranski & Petrusic,
Indeed, confidence has been shown to predict performance on
other cognitive tasks, such as mathematical problem solving
(Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 1997; Schmader et al., 2009) and
semantic categorization (Estes, 2004; Pasterski, Zwierzynska,
& Estes, 2011). So given these sex differences in confidence
and mental rotation, and given that confidence mediates per-
formance on some cognitive tasks, confidence might mediate
the sex difference in mental rotation. This presumed relation
thoroughly explored and the results are mixed. Gonzales, Blan-
of task competence did not predict their scores on a test of
mathematical andspatialabilities.In contrast,Cooke-Simpson
and Voyer (2007) found that participants’ confidence ratings
reliably predicted their mental rotation scores (r=?.69), with
more confident men and women outperforming their less con-
Each trial of the MRT consists of one standard and four alter-
native figures. Exactly two of the alternatives are rotated ver-
though, participants may omit one or both responses. Females
tend to provide fewer responses than males (d=.30, Voyer,
Rodgers, & McCormick, 2004; see also Voyer & Saunders,
does not eliminate the sex difference in performance (Masters,
1998; Peters, 2005; Peters et al., 1995; Resnick, 1993). Never-
theless, the mere possibility of omitting responses supports the
hypothesis that confidence mediates the sex difference in
mediator of performance.
mental rotation performance. Specifically, if confidence medi-
ates mental rotation, then (1) confidence should predict mental
renderingconfidence irrelevanttothetaskshouldattenuate the
sex difference, and (3) manipulating participants’ confidence
three predictions across four experiments.
tal rotation performance between sexes, within each sex, and
they additionally rated their confidence in each response. Fol-
time constraint of 15s per trial, which allows greater experi-
ference (Peters, 2005; Voyer et al., 2004).
Fig.1 A trial of the MRT
Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570 559
Cooke-Simpson and Voyer (2007) provided tentative evi-
dence that confidence predicted MRT performance, but that
item on the MRT includes four alternative figures, exactly two
of which are rotated versions of the standard. Participants in
Cooke-Simpson and Voyer’s study only rated their confidence
in each item, which included between zero and two responses
(depending on how many responses the participant omits on a
given item). Unfortunately, this methodology likely decreased
participants provided confidence ratings for each pair of
of the two or should it be the maximum? Conversely, this
methodology also limits the precision of possible conclusions
from the research: Because participants provided a single con-
fidence rating for each pair of responses, it is unclear to which
response a given rating refers. Finally, Cooke-Simpson and
Voyer examined the relation between confidence and perfor-
mance only across individuals. That is, they calculated each
participant’s mean confidence rating and overall accuracy
informative, it fails to test the potential relation between con-
fidence and performance within an individual.1Is a given par-
fident than when she is less confident?
To address theselimitations, in Experiment 1, we required
(rather than after each pair of responses). By removing the
complexity and ambiguity of judging confidence over multiple
responses, this procedure may elicit more accurate ratings and
individuals tend to outperform less confident individuals (as in
pant was more likely to respond correctly when she was highly
the relation between confidence and performance on a trial-by-
trial basis. If confidence mediates mental rotation performance,
sexes, within each sex, and possibly even within individuals.
credit forparticipation,andnoneparticipatedinmore thanone
of the experiments. Seventy undergraduates (35 females, 35
males) participated in Experiment 1.
procedures for administration of the MRT, participants were
informed that each standard figure had two matching alterna-
tives, and they were instructed not to respond unless they were
sure of the answer (see Voyer & Saunders, 2004).
In each of the present experiments, participants were tested
individually in a sound attenuated room and the entire experi-
ment (including the instructions) was administered via com-
standard and four alternatives aligned horizontally onscreen
(see Fig.1). The figures remained onscreen for 15s and were
then replaced with the prompt‘‘Please enter your first choice.’’
Participants either pressed the A,B, C or D key or else pressed
1 (‘‘not at all’’) through 7 (‘‘extremely’’) were the only valid
choices. The prompt‘‘Please enter your second choice’’then
appeared, followed again by ‘‘How confident are you in this
pressing the spacebar), they were instructed to press any num-
ber for the confidence rating and those ratings were excluded
from all analyses. After the second confidence rating had been
imental trials, which were presented in random order. After
1Cooke-Simpson and Voyer (2007) also computed two additional mea-
participant they calculated the mean confidence and the mean accuracy,
not examine the relation between confidence and accuracy on each trial.
Moreover, both of their additional measures required the assumption that
confidence ratings on a 1-to-7 scale map directly and evenly onto a prob-
Presumably, if a participant believes that there is zero chance that his
to a different response. The important point for our purposes here is that
Cooke-Simpson and Voyer did not examine the relation between confi-
dence and accuracy on a trial-by-trial basis, as we did in Experiment 1.
560 Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570
or female, respectively, and then to enter their age into a text-
For each of the experiments, we adopted the relatively strict
lier and was, therefore, excluded from analyses. In the present
experiment, this led to the exclusion of three males.
Accuracy was defined as the total percent correct (i.e.,
number correct/number possible). Scores were also corrected
Some researchers score a trial as correct only if two correct
responses are provided. These scores were also highly corre-
lated with the total scores, r(67)=?.97, p\.001. Given these
high intercorrelations (see also Masters, 1998; Resnick, 1993;
Voyer et al., 1995) and for the sake of simplicity, hereafter we
report only the total percent correct.
Results and Discussion
4.62, SD=1.41), d=.74, t(65)=3.26, p\.01. The effect size
of this sex difference in confidence was comparable to that
accurate than females, t(65)=2.44, p\.05, and the effect size
.66, Voyer et al., 1995). Males (M=6, SD=8) and females
responses omitted, t(65)=1.10.
both sexes, r(67)=?.56, p\.001, and the strength of this
correlation was comparable to that observed in prior studies
(r=?.69; Cooke-Simpson & Voyer, 2007). Confidence also
predicted accuracy among females, r(35)=?.45, p\.01, and
confidence may contribute not only to the sex difference in
mental rotation performance, but alsoto individual differences
within each sex (see also Cooke-Simpson & Voyer, 2007).
Confidence was unrelated to the percentage of omitted trials,
r=-.14. Rather, omissions were negatively correlated with
accuracy, r(67)=-.47, p\.001; the fewer responses a partic-
ipant provided, the lower the overall score.
Figure2 illustrates the relationship of confidence and accu-
also tended to be highly accurate. Figure3 illustrates the rela-
restricted range of confidence ratings, and because the ratings
unequal numbers of observations across the confidence points.
Despite this limitation, a linearly increasing function was
observedbetweenconfidence and accuracy for bothmales and
females. That is, as one’s confidence increased, so did one’s
successful at gauging their own relative performance on indi-
vidual trials of the MRT. So, together, Figs.2 and 3 reveal that
confidence to their accuracy (Fig.3), though males tended
These analyses establish a relationship among sex, confi-
whether confidence mediated the effect of sex on accuracy, as
Table1 Accuracy (% correct) as a function of sex (Experiments 1–4)
NM SD NM SD
1 Omission 35 68 1232 75 12.58*
2Omission41 63 1243 7314.72**
Commission42 73 1243 75 12.19
3 Commission39 80 1339 80 15.03
Confidence 35 75 1730 9361.16***
4High confidence 35 81 1335 90 11.74**
Low confidence 35 77 1534 8516
d effect size (Cohen’s d) of the sex difference in accuracy. Participants
were given 15s per trial in Experiments 1, 2 and 4, and were given
unlimited time in Experiment 3
?p\.06; *p\.05; **p\.01; ***p\.001
Accuracy (% Correct)
Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570561
Kenny’s (1986) regression method for simple mediation. The
mediation model is illustrated in Fig.4. For these regressions,
thesexfactor wascodedas1for maleand2forfemale,sothat
lished above, sex negatively predicted both confidence ratings,
b=-.38, and mental rotation scores, b=-.29, whereas con-
4.73, p\.001, whereas sex failed to predict mental rotation
rotation scores was eliminated. That confidence reduced the
predictive validity of the sex factor to nearly zero (i.e., b=
-.09) indicates not only that confidence mediated the sex dif-
ference in mental rotation performance, but indeed that this
mediation was nearly complete. Finally, a reverse mediation
mediated the effect of sex on confidence. With sex and mental
rotation scores as the predictor variables and confidence as
the criterion, sex significantly predicted confidence, b=-.23,
mediate thesexdifference inconfidence,butratherconfidence
strongly mediated the sex difference in mental rotation per-
confidence predicted mental rotation performance both across
1 further demonstrated, for the first time, that confidence pre-
dicted mental rotation performance within individuals: Partic-
ipants were more accurate on trials for which they were more
to date of the relation between confidence and mental rotation.
Finally, Experiment 1 also provided the first evidence of the
direction of this relationship: Mediation analyses revealed that
confidence mediated the sex difference in mental rotation per-
the sex difference in confidence. Nonetheless, such mediation
analyses provide only indirect evidence of the nature of this
relationship. Experimental manipulations of confidence would
provide more direct evidence of its relation to mental rotation
performance. Experiments 2–4 thus manipulated confidence
and examined its influence on mental rotation performance.
In Experiment 2, we sought to attenuate the sex difference in
to the task. One group of participants completed the standard
MRT, in which they were permitted to omit trials at their dis-
cretion (‘‘omission’’group). This condition was identical to the
preceding experiment, except that confidence ratings were not
collected. Another group of participants also completed the
MRT, but were required to respond on every trial (‘‘commis-
respond (commit) or abstain (omit), and hence confidence is
not permitted, the efficacy of evaluating one’s confidence is
eliminated, and hence we hypothesized that confidence would
have a diminished effect on performance. So if indeed confi-
dence contributes to the sex difference in mental rotation, then
requiring a response on every trial should attenuate that differ-
ence by rendering confidence irrelevant to the task.
could conceivably render participants’ confidence even more
salient, in which case this commission group might exhibit an
in the omission group. Thus, if confidence affects mental rota-
tion, then we should observe an interaction such that the omis-
smaller than that of the commission group. Critically, an inter-
action in either direction would suggest that confidence
Accuracy (% Correct)
Fig.3 Accuracy as a function of confidence within participants,
Sex Mental Rotation
β = -.29*
β = -.38**
β = +.53***
β = -.09 ns
performance, Experiment 1. *p\.05; **p\.01; ***p\.001
562Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570
rotation, then the sex difference should be equivalent across
groups (i.e., no interaction should occur).
A total of 174 undergraduates (85 females, 89 males) partici-
pated. Three outlying males and two outlying females were
above. Materials were identical to those of Experiment 1. For
participants in the omissiongroup, the procedure was identical
tothat ofExperiment1,withtheexceptionthat confidence rat-
dition was identical to the omission condition, except that par-
They were instructed to provide their best guess if they were
unsure of an answer.
Results and Discussion
mission condition. A 2 (Sex) by 2 (Condition) analysis of var-
significantly outperformed females, t(82)=3.54, p\.01. The
effect size (d=.72) was comparable to other studies that have
used this standard‘‘omission’’instruction with the MRT (d=
.66; Voyer et al., 1995). In contrast, males and females in the
commission group did not differ in accuracy, t(83)\1. To
examine the reliability of this null sex difference in the com-
published studies of the sex difference on the MRT among
participants over 18years of age, Voyer et al. (1995, Table4)
difference was observed in the commission group.
We suggest that the mere possibility of omitting a response
renders confidence efficacious, because presumably the deci-
sion to respond or omit was based on confidence. But when
required to respond, confidence was no longer efficacious and
hence its effect was attenuated. However, females (M=14%,
SD=12) also omitted more responses than males (M=7%,
SD=7), d=.63, t(82)=3.04, p\.01, and this effect size was
somewhat larger than that observed in prior research (d=.30,
be attributable to omissions rather than confidence per se. We
therefore held omissions constant via analysis of covariance,
and the sex difference in accuracy remained significant, F(1,
81)=4.86, p\.05. Thus, the sex difference in mental rotation
was attributable to confidence rather than omissions.
Experiment 2 (‘‘commission’’ group). Another group was also
required to respond on every trial but, critically, they also pro-
sex difference in performance is due to omissions, then neither
disallowed from omitting responses. Alternatively, if the sex
conditions,participants were given unlimited timeto complete
A total of 148 undergraduates (76 females, 72 males) partici-
pated. Three outlying males and two outlying females were
above. Materials were identical to those of Experiment 1. For
participants in the commission group, the procedure was iden-
tical to the commission condition of Experiment 2, except that
participants were given unlimited time to complete each trial.
Thus, the stimuli remained onscreen until the participant pro-
after each response, as in Experiment 1.
Results and Discussion
Results are summarized in Table1. Relative to Experiment 2,
to have increased accuracy (see also Peters, 2005). But, most
in accuracy that was obtained in Experiment 1 whereas the
commission group replicated the null sex difference that was
confirmed a significant interaction in accuracy, F(1, 139)=
15.94, p\.001. That is, males and females in the commission
group did not differ in accuracy, t(76)\1, despite good statis-
power=.89). In the confidence group, however, males were
Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570563
observed range of effect sizes on this task (Voyer et al., 1995).
Males (M=6.35, SD=.63) were also more confident than
females (M=5.19, SD=1.19), d=1.04, t(63)=4.84, p\
confidence was irrelevant to the task (i.e., commission group),
the sex difference in accuracy was eliminated. But when con-
fidence was reinstated as relevant to the task (i.e., confidence
3 therefore supported the hypothesis that mental rotation is
mediated by confidence.
In fact, as illustrated in Fig.5, confidence ratings predicted
(r=?.69, Cooke-Simpson & Voyer, 2007). The correlation
not among males, r=?.23, and these slopes differed signifi-
fidence and accuracy might indicate that, under these circum-
accurately than males did. However, no difference in cali-
amongmalesin the present study is more likely attributable
Fig.5). Indeed, relative to Experiment 1, both the confidence
and the accuracy of both males and females increased substan-
ited time allowed for responding in Experiment 3, compared to
15s per trial in Experiment 1. As in Experiment 1, we addi-
linearly increasing function of confidence (see Fig.6). This
result replicates the general pattern observed in Experiment 1
(Fig.3), and indicates that both males’ and females’ confi-
dence was indeed calibrated to their performance.
line judgment task that was intentionally difficult, so that par-
and another line was presented horizontally. The task was to
judge whether the two lines were of the same length. As
expected, performance on this task was near chance (M=.56,
SE=.01), with males and females performing equally poorly,
below average (‘‘low confidence’’condition). All participants
the MRT, with 15s per trial. Because the line judgment task
required comparison of lines at different orientations, we
confidence mediates mental rotation performance, then partic-
counterparts in the low confidence condition.
A total of 153 undergraduates (76 females, 77 males) partici-
pated. Eight outlying males and six outlying females were
Accuracy (% Correct)
Accuracy (% Correct)
564 Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570
excluded from all analyses on the basis of the criteria estab-
The line judgment task consisted of three standard lines and
five alternative lines for each standard. The‘‘large’’standard
was 4.5in., the‘‘medium’’was 33% shorter (3.02in.), and the
‘‘small’’was 67% shorter than the‘‘large’’(1.49in.). For each
of the three standards, one alternative was identical, one was
of Experiment 1.
Participants were initially informed that the experiment would
consist of two parts and that the first part was a line judgment
task. On each trial of the line judgment task, the standard was
presented in vertical orientation. The alternative always
appeared in horizontal orientation at the midpoint of the stan-
dard, separated horizontally by 1in. Each standard was
presented eight times. On four of those presentations, the
alternative was of the same length. On the other four presenta-
in the upper half of the computer display. After 2s, the prompt
‘‘Same (S) or different (D)?’’appeared in the lower part of the
display while the lines remained onscreen. Participants indi-
cated by keypress whether the lines were of the same length.
Participants were randomly assigned to either a high confi-
dence or a low confidence condition. At the conclusion of the
upper part of the display for 3s:‘‘EVALUATION: Your per-
high confidence condition saw‘‘ABOVE AVERAGE’’in the
condition saw‘‘BELOW AVERAGE.’’After a 1s delay,‘‘on
The entire statement of evaluation remained onscreen simulta-
press the spacebar to proceed to the second part of the experi-
the MRT was identical to that of the omission condition of
Results and Discussion
Results are summarized in Table1. A 2 (Sex) by 2 (Condition)
ANOVA confirmed an overall sex difference in accuracy, F(1,
The effect sizes in the low and high confidence conditions were
comparable to those observed in prior studies (d=.66, Voyer
et al., 1995). The interaction was not significant, F(1, 135)\1.
confidence group significantly outperforming those in the low
affected their mental rotation: Participants scored higher on the
age on a line judgment task than after being informed that they
in the high confidence group and males in the low confidence
group did not differ in accuracy, t(68)=1.09, despite good sta-
tistical power to detect such a difference (with d=.66 and
A 2 (Sex) by 2 (Condition) ANOVA on the percentage of
omitted responses yielded no main effect of condition, F(1,
135)\1, and no interaction, F(1, 135)\1, indicating that the
effect of condition on accuracy was not attributable to a dif-
iment 2, there was an overall sex difference in omissions, F(1,
(d=.66) was comparable to that observed in Experiment 2
(d=.63) and in other studies (d=.30, Voyer et al., 2004). We
in Experiment 2, and the sex difference in accuracy remained
significant, F(1, 134)=4.36, p\.05. Thus, the sex difference
Given that men are more confident than women on mental
rotation tasks (Cooke-Simpson & Voyer, 2007) and that con-
fidence mediates performance on other cognitive tasks (Casey
et al., 1997; Estes, 2004), we hypothesized that confidence
would mediate the sex difference in mental rotation perfor-
it is consistent with much prior research demonstrating that
sociocognitive factors, such as gender role beliefs (e.g., Massa
et al., 2005), sex-typedness (e.g., Saucier et al., 2002), sexual
orientation (e.g., Peters et al., 2007), and salience of sex ste-
reotypes (e.g., McGlone & Aronson, 2006), are related to
mental rotation performance. Confidence may serve as a com-
mon mediator by which these distal factors affect mental rota-
given trial of the MRT, one’s choice to respond or abstain pre-
sumably derives from one’s confidence in knowing the correct
response.Hence,confidenceisefficacious inthat itdetermines
whether to respond or abstain. So confidence is relevant to
Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570565
performance on cognitive tasks (Petrusic & Baranski, 2003), it
was a plausible mediator.
Experiment 1 replicated the sex difference inmental rotation
performance,but alsoshowedthatconfidence mediatedthis sex
difference in mental rotation scores. Confidence predicted per-
formance betweensexes,withineachsex, andevenwithinindi-
efficacy of confidence by requiring participants to respond on
difference in accuracy.However,the confidence conditionrein-
ticipants to judge their confidence in each response. With con-
emerged. Finally, in Experiment 4, we manipulated partici-
either above or below average on an extremely difficult line
judgment task. Participants subsequently performed better
high confidence condition performed as well on the MRT as
men in the low confidence condition. Thus, in each of the four
mental rotation performance by controlling or manipulating
(see also Moe & Pazzaglia, 2006; Wraga et al., 2006). Poten-
tially effective methods for achieving this outcome include
rejecting the negative stereotype that women have poor spatial
skills, encouraging women to view spatial skills as learnable,
encouraging females to engage in more spatial tasks, and pro-
viding positive feedback when they do so. Such methods have
proven effective for combating the effects of negative ste-
reotypes onspatial tests andother performance measures (e.g.,
Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Feng, Spence, & Pratt, 2007;
Meneghetti, & Cadinu, 2009). Another promising method is
to encourage women to reappraise the arousal they experience
when performing under stereotype threat (Jamieson, Mendes,
Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010; Johns, Inzlicht, & Schmader,
merely rendering confidence irrelevant to the task might also
improve females’ mental rotation performance.
accentuate the sex difference in performance. Because partici-
pants may omit responses, the MRT implicitly induces par-
ticipants to evaluate their confidence on each trial, thereby
exhibits the largest and most robust cognitive sex difference,
with effect sizes (Cohen’s d) ranging from .45 to 1.16 in the
present study (see Table1) and an average effect size of .66
acrossstudies(Voyeretal., 1995).Thelargemagnitude of this
sex difference may be a direct consequence of the fact that
confidence is particularly efficacious for performance on the
MRT. This is not to say that the sex difference is merely a
methodological artifact; rather, it may explain why the magni-
rotation (see Voyer et al., 1995). This raises the question of
whether confidence also mediates the sex difference observed
test of the Primary Mental Abilities test) (Thurstone & Thur-
and-Frame test) (Witkin & Asch, 1948). Thus, the full impli-
spatial ability are yet to be determined.
tal factors (i.e., mediators) such as gender role beliefs to prox-
et al., 2007; Johns et al., 2008; Rydell, McConnell, & Beilock,
2009; Schmader& Johns, 2003;Schmaderet al.,2008), inves-
tigations of this sex difference rarely extend across multiple
our primary purpose was to establish as simply as possible
whether confidence mediates mental rotation performance, the
potential mediators or mechanisms.
Other Potential Mediators
Intheintroduction,we reviewedseveralstudies demonstrating
that sex stereotypes can affect mental rotation performance.
Because we focused instead on confidence as a potential
mediator of mental rotation, the present experiments did not
stereotype threat, and stereotype lift explicitly appeal to confi-
dence as a likely mediator between stereotypes and behavior
2003). In the domain of mathematics, for instance, stereotype
threat increases self-doubt (Steele & Aronson, 1995) and neg-
ative performance-related thoughts (Beilock et al., 2007; Cad-
evaluation eliminates the stereotype threat effect (Martens
et al., 2006; Rydell et al., 2009). In spatial tasks, women per-
566Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570
achievement (McGlone & Aronson, 2006), when told that the
test measures empathy (Massa et al., 2005), when told that
and when confident in their ability on masculine tasks (Moe
et al., 2009). All of these findings implicate confidence as a
likely mediator between sex stereotypes and performance on
spatial and mathematical tests.
tial tasks (Newcombe, Bandura, & Taylor, 1983; Quaiser-Pohl,
tal rotation performance and attenuates the sex difference (Feng
(Kail & Park, 1990; Lohman & Nichols, 1990; Sims & Mayer,
2002). Thus, the improvement in performance may be attribut-
able to stimulus familiarity rather than task experience (Bethel-
1979). These effects of spatial experience and stimulus famil-
iarity on mental rotation performance could, like the sex differ-
ence itself, be mediated by confidence. That is, practice and
mance onspatial tasks.
hormones may explain the sex difference in spatial ability.
Casey (1996) also argued that the sexual dimorphism in spa-
though she additionally posited that spatial experience con-
tributes to spatial ability. The present results do not exclude
these biological explanations. But if differential lateralization
and/or differential hormone exposure do contribute to the sex
difference in mental rotation, their influence is mediated by
deployment of strategies for mental rotation. Researchers have
noted differential strategy use among participants (Schultz,
holistic strategy (i.e., rotating the object as a single entity) pro-
the object part-by-part; Bethel-Fox & Shepard, 1988; Geiser,
(Cochran & Wheatley, 1989; Geiser et al. 2006; Heil & Jansen-
Osmann,2008). Forinstance,women rotatecomplex objects
egy.Incontrast,menrotate complexandsimple objects equally
fast, suggesting a holistic strategy (Heil & Jansen-Osmann,
whereas low confidence induces analytic rotation.
Other potential cognitive mechanisms are spatial atten-
performance monitoring, and suppression of negative stereo-
subsequently hinders performance on cognitive tasks. For
instance, when women are the target of a negative stereotype,
mathematical performance (Beilock et al., 2007; Johns et al.,
2008; Rydell et al., 2009; Schmader et al., 2009; Schmader &
present case, confidence might reduce stress or alleviate the
memory capacity for use on mental rotations. More directly
mental rotation performance was predicted by spatial working
males were better able to distribute attention across space, and
they concluded that the sex difference in mental rotation per-
formance was partially mediated by spatial attention. Thus,
(Feng et al., 2007) and spatial working memory (Kaufman,
2007) contribute to the sex difference in mental rotation. It is
currently unclear whether participants’ confidence is related to
either or both of these mechanisms.
In sum, we found that confidence predicted performance both
between and within sexes (Experiment 1), that rendering con-
fidence irrelevant to the task reliably eliminated the sex differ-
ence in performance (Experiments 2 and 3), and that manip-
ulating confidence significantly affected performance (Experi-
ment 4). Given that mental rotation exhibits the largest sex
difference of any cognitive task (Halpern, 2000; Hines, 2004;
four experiments by such simple controls and manipulations.
Confidence at least partially explains the variability in mental
Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41:557–570 567
rotation performance within each sex, as well as the difference
tant endeavor for future research is to investigate how confi-
rotation strategies, working memory, and spatial attention.
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