Mar. 13, 1998 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Robin West, (352) 392-0601
GAINESVILLE --- Popular notion has it that a man won't ask directions when lost on the road, but perhaps he should seek help from a woman to find something in the house, a University of Florida study suggests.
Although men were more confident than women that they could remember where in the house they put their car keys, pill bottles and other personal effects, women showed greater competence in actually finding the objects, said Robin West, a UF psychology professor who designed the research project along with Duana Welch, a UF psychology graduate student. They studied men and women in the Gainesville area between the ages of 18 and 30, and 50 and 90, but they believe the findings apply to all ages.
"To say that when it comes to memory, women have more skill than confidence and men have more confidence than skill is a simplistic way to put it, but we found it to be true in this study," said West, author of the book "Memory Fitness Over Forty."
Perhaps women outperform men because they have more experience in finding things around the house, while men show more confidence because they are socialized throughout life to form strong self-convictions, Welch said. Also, she said, American women are brought up to be supportive and nonthreatening.
In her research of memory, West said she has found, regardless of age, that women are better than men at remembering grocery lists and people's names. But men excel at certain spatial tasks, such as mentally rotating objects to see how they might fit into space, she said.
Men's superiority on some spatial tasks has been explained, in part, by the different kinds of play activities males and females engage in as children, West said.
"Boys traditionally do things that involve larger movements in space and using their whole body, such as playing baseball or running games," she said, "whereas traditional girls' activities tend to be in smaller, more restricted spaces, such as playing with dolls, which involves staying in one place and manipulating objects by hand."
Using computers, 300 men and women participating in the study touched a computer monitor to show where they wanted to place 20 common objects in a representation of a 12-room house that appeared on the screen. They were given 10 seconds to place the items, with no more than two allowed in each room. Thirty to 45 minutes later, they were asked to recall where they put each of the items, again by touching the rooms shown on the computer screen.
"We were looking at something that has very important day-to-day meaning for people; that is, the ability to find where you put something," Welch said. "We find that many people have more difficulty with this ability as they get older."
Although studies have shown older people are as good as young people at finding things in their own home, they don't do as well in unfamiliar surroundings, she said.
"It's essential that older adults learn to perform these kind of memory tasks in more than one setting because they can't always control the situation they're in," Welch said. "Many of them travel. Some will be institutionalized for a time in a hospital or nursing home. Many will visit relatives for an extended period of time. Or perhaps some kind of natural disaster will cause them to have to leave their homes at some point."
In working with older adults, West said she finds it is just as important to train to improve self-confidence as it is skill because the elderly are much less sure of their abilities than they should be. They are quicker to note when they forget something than when they remember something, and that lack of confidence may interfere with success, she said.
Because older people are so often victims of stereotypes about memory loss and many are starting to see their peers lose some memory skills, such feelings are not surprising, Welch said.
The UF study was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health.
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