Sunday, November 24, 2013

"What going on?": Gender difference in remembering events

Gender differences have always been a popular topic within psychology, largely because it gives all of us something to root for and relate to. I can’t tell you how many times I have disagreed with my brother when he remembers an event one way and I remember something completely different, with little way of knowing who is “right.” To date, many brilliant psychological scientists have tried to describe the differences in the way men and women think. Often enough, we find that we are not that different after all, while other times we are different in the most unusual but obvious ways. To date, researchers have focused largely on describing the ways in which men and women perform differently in memory tasks. When it comes to events, women outperform men in remembering the nitty, gritty details of experiences. However, fewer studies have sought to describe why men and women differ in their ability to remember events.

Memory is a fascinating but difficult ability to study within psychology because there are so many steps involved. For example, in order to remember the details of a party, you must first attend to them, then you must see them, then you must commit them to memory, then you must be able to recall them. All of these steps are necessary to show your memory is “working.” Thus, these gender differences clue us in that men and women may have different performances in the outcome, memory performance, while the reason for that difference may be a female strength in one component of the process or a male deficit in another.

So, Dr. Qi Wang of Cornell University conducted a study to ask the question: 

How do men and women differ in their memories of events? 

To address this question, Dr. Wang recruited 60 males and female undergraduate students to participate in a study on the everyday experiences of college students. After agreeing to participate in the study and providing demographic information, participants received text messages 3 times per day for one week. This text message simply said, "What's going on?" After receiving this text, the participants were to describe what they had been doing for the past 30 minutes, and rate their current mood on a 7-point scale from "very unpleasant" to "very pleasant." This method is called experience sampling, and attempts to get more accurate information about the daily experiences of individuals than is attained when completing standard retrospective questionnaires. At the end of the 7 day period, participants were invited back to the lab to receive their payment for participation. At this lab visit, the research staff administered a "Surprise Memory Test," which probed each individual for information about the events they reported throughout the week. The research team then coded and compared the information provided throughout the week with the content of information provided during the memory test. During this coding process, the research team was interested in how consistent or inconsistent the report was of each memory, as well as how socially-oriented the memories of each event were. For example, memories of "watching a movie with a friend" would be coded as social, while simply "watching a movie" would not.

Throughout the week, they found no differences between men and women in their reports of emotion at the time of each experience sample, and no difference in the socially-oriented content of the daily experiences recorded. However, women reported more detail in their daily experiences than men. At the time of the memory test, women remembered significantly more details in their experiences throughout the week. This was true even when controlling for the total number of details the individual reported on average. This was very interesting for me to learn, given that there is a stereotype that women are more talkative, and thus the female advantage in remembering events may be driven by increased opportunities to retrieve and encode the information through conversation. However, the article does an excellent job reviewing the literature in relation to this gender stereotype. In fact, several studies have asked whether women actually do talk more than men, and they have universally found that not to be the case. Instead, they find that men communicate equally throughout the day compared with women, while the quality, purpose, and audience of that communication are what actually appear to vary by gender. 

In the present study, Dr. Wang also found that while men and women did not differ in how socially oriented their daily experiences were throughout the week, this pattern changed over time. The results of the memory test showed that men's memories for events during the week became less socially oriented over time, while women's memories for events became more socially oriented over time. This finding was interpreted by Dr. Wang as an explanation for how gendered perceptions of experiences emerge, such that the male identity is defined by agency and autonomy while the female identity is defined by relatedness and care.  

So what does this mean? Dr. Wang interpreted these findings within a long history of research describing superior memory performance among females regarding events, or episodic memories, compared with males. Thus, these data suggest that women don't actually retain more information over time than men, but rather they attend to more details of the environment, encode more details of an experience, and then show greater access to details of those memories in the future. 

What does this mean? It’s important to keep in mind that this study exclusively looked at memory for events, not any other memory. Males outperform females in some other forms of memory, so in no way is this evidence that women are smarter or more capable. Instead, this is a piece of evidence to suggest that women may pay more attention to their environment than men and therefore have the opportunity to create for to be remembered. For men, this means that if you are tired of forgetting where you left your glass at the party, or which chair is the broken one in the conference room at work, or where the bathrooms are at the mall, then increasing your attention to your surroundings may really improve your quality of life (not to mention make your girlfriend happy). 
Wang, Q. (2013). Gender and emotion in everyday event memory. Memory,21(4), 503-511.

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