Do women have sharper brains? Study reveals they remember more words than men

BERGEN, Norway — Do women actually have better memories than men? Psychology textbooks and popular science books have made repeated claims that women remember more words than men, but there hasn’t been much data to support the assertion. Now, researchers from the University of Bergen are settling the debate, confirming there is a slight female advantage.

Women are better. The female advantage is consistent across time and life span, but it is also relatively small,” says study co-author Marco Hirnstein in a university release.

Prior literature has made assumptions about women’s superior ability at finding words such as name words that start with a certain letter or category. There’s also been an accepted “truth” that women are better at not only recalling but remembering words.

The current study suggests the claim is true, but not to the extent that textbooks say. When diving into the research on sex differences, the results were always a mixed bag. Some identified a female advantage and others a male advantage. Fueling confusion were other small studies that found no inherent differences between men and women.

“Most intellectual skills show no or negligible differences in average performance between men and women,” explains Hirnstein. “However, women excel in some tasks, while men excel in others on average.”

Understanding sex-based differences could help with more than remembering a few words. It could also be useful in diagnosing and treating medical conditions that have different outcomes depending on a person’s biological sex. For example, knowing that women perform better than men on cognitive tasks in general could lead to an underdiagnosis of dementia-related diseases if the baseline for doing well is lower. Men, on the other hand, could have a problem with overdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s if they are compared to women that are already at a higher cognitive level to start.

The team pooled the data of past cognitive studies to get more clarity on the mental prowess of men and women. The meta-analysis they conducted involved data from over 350,000 participants — making it one of the largest studies to date looking at the possibility of a female advantage. They found a small but consistent female advantage in remembering words that lasted for about 50 years.

One unique finding: determining female advantage also depends on the gender of the leading scientist. Female scientists were more likely to report a larger female advantage, while male scientists reported a smaller female advantage.

The study is published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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