We’ve known for a long time that economic, social, and public health conditions influence learning in ways that affect people’s abilities to perform well on memory and math tests. But until now, the impact that improving these conditions could have on men and women’s cognitive abilities was not well understood. A new study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis provides a surprising insight into this process: As nations develop, women’s cognitive performance improves significantly more than men’s does. David DiSalvo reports their findings in Forbes.
The researchers used data from The European Survey of Health obtained through interviews with 31,000 European men and women from ages 50-84 living in 13 different countries. Each country was given a regional development index (RDI). The measure of RDI included gross domestic product (GDP), life expectancy, education, and infant mortality rates. The researchers plotted changes in RDI across the life of each participant, in an effort to demonstrate the economic and social conditions the participants experienced.
The interviews also evaluated three levels of each subject’s cognitive performance. The results followed the expectations of the researchers according to gender, but that changed when RDI entered the equation.
“…when RDI was factored in, a remarkable and less expected result emerged: improvements in RDI for each country correlated with cognitive performance improvements for both genders—but significantly more so for women.”
Simply put, the researchers are saying that women get smarter faster, but the reasons why may be complicated. One possibility is that women gain more because they simply have more to gain. If women start at a disadvantage due to fewer opportunities to learn and to practice cognitive skills, changes in RDI might represent the leveling of a gendered playing field. This leveling might look like an increase for women, even if it results in something closer to equality.
While more research needs to be done to determine the reasons underlying differences in gains between men and women, this study shows the important role played by social factors in determining cognitive performance.