COLUMBUS, Ohio – Women are better than men at remembering the appearance of others, a new study shows.
The gender difference in appearance memory was not great, but it shows another area where women are superior to men in interpersonal sensitivity, said Terrence Horgan, lead author of the study and research fellow in psychology at Ohio State University.
“Women have an advantage when it comes to remembering things like the physical features, clothing and postures of other people,” Horgan said. “This advantage might be due to women being slightly more people-oriented than men are.”
The study also found that both men and women did better at remembering the appearance of women than they did remembering how men looked.
Horgan conducted the study with Marianne Schmid Mast and Judith Hall of Northeastern University, and Jason Carter of the State University of New York at New Paltz. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The advantage for women showed up under different conditions, Horgan said. He did five separate studies testing appearance memory.
In two studies, participants were told beforehand that they were going to be tested about their memory of the people they viewed. In these studies, college students (77 and 111 in the respective studies) viewed videotapes and slides of people talking about themselves or interacting with others. After viewing the tapes or slides, participants were asked various questions to test their memory. They were asked about things such as eye color, whether a person was wearing a ring or other jewelry, the pattern of a person’s sweater, and if a person had his or her arms crossed.
In one study, there was no difference between men and women in their appearance memory. However, this was the only one of the five studies that did not show an advantage to women, so Horgan believes the overall results favor women.
The other three studies were substantially different in two ways: the participants interacted with each other one-to-one instead of viewing slides or videotapes, and they weren’t told in advance that they would be tested for appearance memory. These studies involved 120 college students.
The participants were grouped into pairs and asked to role-play a situation in which they both worked at an art gallery. After the role-playing exercise, they were taken to separate rooms where they were questioned about the appearance of their partner. They were asked to describe their partner’s hair, clothing, and other striking features. The researchers then scored each person’s description to determine how accurate they were.
In all of these three studies, women were more accurate than men in describing their partners. In addition, participants of both genders were more accurate in their descriptions when their partners were women than when the partners were men.
Women in general may be more memorable than men because their hair and clothing styles and use of jewelry tends to be more varied than that of men. For example, in many offices men may look similar in their suits and ties. But women may be wearing necklaces and earrings, or have other jewelry or clothing that makes their appearance stand out more, Horgan said.
However, the results suggest women aren’t more memorable because people spend more time looking at them. The researchers measured how long participants in the last three studies looked directly at their partners. Overall, the participants didn’t look at women any longer than they looked at men.
Horgan said the study couldn’t answer all the questions about the gender differences.
“We really don’t know for sure why women have an advantage at remembering how others look,” Horgan said. “But these results go along with studies that show women are better than men in other areas having to do with interpersonal sensitivity.”
For example, other studies have shown women have an advantage at using nonverbal cues to understand how others are feeling, and how they are likely to behave. Women also appear to be better at using nonverbal cues to understand someone’s personality traits.
If there is anything surprising about the results, Horgan said, it may be that women didn’t have a greater advantage than they did. Men did quite well at remembering the appearance of others, but overall women did slightly better.
The advantage for women does have real-world implications, he said.
“We use appearance cues to categorize individuals, to help us understand them. This helps us to interact better with others. Focusing on others’ appearance is an important part of our everyday interactions,” he said.
The study was supported in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Zurcher Hochschulverein.
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