The Effects of Gender and Stereotype Threats on a Mental Rotation Task
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
Home |
The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
Jones, L., Christian, S.E., Lantz, J., & Calvert, (2008). The Effects of Gender and Stereotype Threats on a Mental Rotation Task. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 11. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Effects of Gender and Stereotype Threats on a Mental Rotation Task

Sponsored by: JASON WARNICK (
Many stereotypes are presented throughout one’s life-span. This experiment focuses on the stereotype that women perform significantly worse than men at mental rotation tasks. There have also been indications that socialization is a determinant in one’s efficiency while performing mental rotation tasks. Out of 102 undergraduates who were tested for visual spatial ability, it was determined that women perform just as well as men on mental rotation tasks when presented with a stereotype threat. Men also showed that socialization played a role in ones ability to mentally rotate due to the correlation between self-assessment in mathematics and their scores on our mental rotation task. These results are consistent with past research.

Imagery is a form of cognition on many different levels and many human activities rely on it. This form of cognition ranges from having a sense of direction, to the ability to solve complex and abstract problems (Kosslyn, 1994). One fascinating phenomenon of mental imagery is the ability of a person to be able to rotate mental images of abstract objects in the mind. This mental rotation is one of visual spatial nature, and often involves parts of the occipital lobe, primarily the V1 area (Kosslyn, 1994). However, it is argued that visual mental images are transformed, in part, via the motor cortex, and also thought that mental rotation occurs in the sensory-motor cortex (Kosslyn, 1994). According to Geary, Gilger, & Elliot-Miller (1992), gender differences in spatial ability have been shown to exist between males and females. This inference is taken from studies performed showing gender differences in visual spatial ability, particularly performing tasks such as mental rotation (Johson & Meade, 1987). It is widely hypothesized, from these differential studies, that if presented a visual spatial task, such as mental rotation, then males will perform the task more rapidly and with more accuracy than the females (Geary, Gilger, & Elliot-Miller, 1992). Further research on gender differences in spatial ability has shown that a stereotype threat may improve women’s performance on a mental rotation task (Martens, Schmader, & Johns, 2005). A stereotype threat occurs when a general stereotype about a particular subject is presented in a concerning matter. Martens, Schmader, & Johns (2005) have shown that when women are informed about a stereotype threat during their performance on intellectual and mathematical tests, the test scores are significantly higher than women who are not presented with a stereotype threat. In this study our first null hypothesis predicts that if women are presented with the stereotype threat that women do significantly worse on mental rotation tests than men, then they will perform worse than men at mental rotation tasks. Our second null hypothesis predicts that involvement in math, science, art, and athletics have no effect on mental rotation ability in males and females.


Our study consists of 102 participants. There were 63 female and 39 male undergraduates at Arkansas Tech University enrolled in one of the following classes: Health and Wellness, Introduction to Anthropology, and History of Social Thought. All participants were chosen due to a various selection of classes and received no compensation for participation in the experiment. The groups within the study were divided up randomly by class into either a stereotype threat group or non-stereotype threat group. There were 53 participants in the stereotype threat group and 49 participants in the non-stereotype threat group. In regards to division of gender, there were 36 females and 17 males in the stereotype group and 27 females and 22 males in the non-stereotype group.

The survey that was used in the experiment questioned participants about age, gender, race, academic major, and whether they were involved in sports, and if so, to list up to two sports. The Likert scale consisted of three statements in regards to feelings about mathematics, science, and art. The participants then rated themselves on a scale from one to seven, one being strongly disagree and seven being strongly agree on how they excelled in these subjects. A mental rotation task consisting of two problems was located on the backside of the survey in order to test the spatial ability of the participant.

In preparation for the experiment, the selected classes were assigned either to the stereotype threat or non-stereotype threat group. The experiments were conducted exactly the same; however, within the stereotype threat group, only the male experimenter spoke to the class explaining the experiment and the stereotype threat itself. Each class was notified that men generally perform better on the mental rotation tasks than women. Both groups in the study were given informed consent forms, information about the study, and were notified how to complete the survey. Each group was given several minutes to complete the front page of the survey which consisted of a set of demographic questions, a question about athletic involvement, and a set of three, seven point Likert scales which the participant used to perform a self-assessment on their ability and interest in mathematics, science, and art. After the completion of the front page of the survey, the experimenter informed the participants they would receive two minutes to complete the two mental rotation problems on the back of the survey after the experimenter gave consent to do so. A score of a zero was obtained if the participant correctly answered none of the problems, a score of one was obtained if the participants correctly answered one of the problems, and a score of two was obtained if the participants correctly answered both of the problems. After two minutes, those giving the instructions called “time” and collected both the informed consent papers as well as the completed surveys. No answers to the surveys were released in either group in order to protect further studies. After the data was collected it was then separated into males and females and stereotype and non-stereotype and inputted into SPSS.

The results of our study indicate that there was a slight difference between males and females when presented with a stereotype threat in a mental rotation task. Males and females in the non-stereotype group showed almost no difference in average scores on the mental rotation test. Both males and females correctly answered on average, one mental rotation problem. When testing whether socialization had an effect on mental rotation, we found that males who felt they efficiently excelled in mathematics scored significantly higher on the mental rotation test (p< 0.05). The Pearson correlation coeffient of .454 (p<0.05) indicates a significant relationship between males’ self assessment of mathematics and their performance on the mental rotation task. Overall, males who thought they were significantly proficient in mathematics, performed better overall on the mental rotation task when compared to males and females who did not excel in mathematics.

In contrast with the results found by Martens, Schmader & Johns (2005), regarding gender stereotype and performance, we found that there was a small difference between males and females in the presence of a female stereotype threat when completing a mental rotation task. Aside from the results of Martens, Schmader, & Johns (2005), which focused solely on stereotype threat, we found there was also a correlation between male’s self-assessment and their performance on the mental rotation task. In general, males who felt they excelled well in mathematics, did significantly better on the mental rotation task. In correspondence with our data in Figure 1, we reject the first null hypothesis that there is no difference when women are presented with a stereotype threat. Based on Table 1, we also reject the second null hypothesis that involvement in math, science, art, and athletics have no effect on mental rotation ability in males and females. This is due to the Pearson’s correlation coefficient found for males, which was statistically significant, in which males who were better at mathematics excelled more efficiently at the mental rotation task. Furthering the study, there are limitations that could be addressed and these are: larger sample size, equal male to female ratio, and the stereotype threat should have been made more salient. Our sample consisted of 102 participants; in order to increase the accuracy of the study a larger sample consisting of participants could be used. The sample of the study was skewed due to the fact that there were only 63 females and only 39 males. Further studies would also need to make the amount of males and females equal. In addition, the stereotype threat presented in the study needs to be more salient by presenting an additional Likert scale for females to rate in regards to endorsement of the gender stereotypes in visual spatial ability.

Alexander, Gerianne M., Son, Troy (2007). Androgens and eye movements in women and men during a test of mental rotation ability. Hormones and Behavior, 52, 197-204.

Chan, David W., Gender differences in spatial ability: Relationship to spatial experience among Chinese gifted students in Hong Kong. Roeper Review, 29, 277-282.

Feng, Jing; Spence, Ian; Pratt, Jay (2007). Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science, 18, 850-855.

Higgins, Heidi Jean (2007). The relationship of sixth-grade students’ mental rotation ability to spatial experience and problem-solving strategies by socio-economic status and gender. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences.67,10-A, 3696.

Geary, C.D., Gilger, W.J., & Elliot-Miller, B. (1992). Gender differences in three-dimensional mental rotation: A replication. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 153, 115-117.

Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is Half the Battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science, 16, 175-179.

Johnson, S. E., Meade, C. A., (1987). Developmental patterns of spatial ability: An early sex difference. Child Development 58, 725-740.

Kass, J. S., Ahlers, H. R., & Dugger, M. (1998). Eliminating gender differences through practice in an applied visual spatial task. Human performance. 11, 337-349.

Khorom, Farnaz (2007). The nature of gender differences in science, mathematics and engineering education: A literature review of stereotype threat and its underlying mechanisms. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 68, 1-B, 625.

Kosslyn, Stephen M. (1994). Image & Brain: The resolution of the imagery debate. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kucian, Karin; Loenneker, Thomas; Dietrich, Thomas (2005). Gender differences in brain activation patterns during mental rotation and number related cognitive tasks. Psychology Science. 47, 112-131.

Linn, C. M., & Petersen, C. A. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: A meta-analysis. Child Development, 56, 1479-1498.

Paivio, Allan (1971). Imagery and Verbal Processes. San Francisco, California: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Inc.

Quaiser-Pohl, C., Lehmann, W. (2002). Girls spatial abilities: Charting the contributions of experiences and attitudes in different academic groups. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 245-260.

Rahman, Qazi; Wilson, Glenn D. (2003). Large sexual-orientation-related differences in performance on mental rotation and judgment of line orientation tasks. Neuropsychology, 17, 25-31.

Submitted 1/23/2008 12:33:14 PM
Last Edited 1/23/2008 12:45:32 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

Rated by 0 users. Users who logon can rate manuscripts and write reviews.

© 2017 National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. All rights reserved. The National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse is not responsible for the content posted on this site. If you discover material that violates copyright law, please notify the administrator. This site receives money through the Google AdSense program when users are directed to useful commercial sites. We do not encourage or condone clicking on the displayed ads unless you have a legitimate interest in the advertisement.