Do women have better memories than men?

17 May 2016

Question

Is it a fact that females have a better memory than males? I always have arguments with my wife about this because I can't remember everything that she does.

Answer

We asked neuroscientist Kate Storrs to help restore marital bliss for Mpho...

Kate - I love how much personal bitterness there is in this question. It's certainly something that people believe. A recent study found that 70% of people believe that women have slightly better memories than men if you just survey popular opinion. There is a fair bit of science on it with very mixed results.

Chris - Usually it relates to how often you put the rubbish out - that kind of thing.

Kate - It certainly does depend what it is you're trying to remember. It's one of those situations where you want to turn to meta-analysis (big gatherings of many studies) to try and make sense of the conflicting results. One recent meta-analysis of 123 studies that had looked at verbal memory (memory of sentences and words, memory for spatial location of object, and memory for faces) found that about 60% of these studies had found slightly better performance in women and most of the remainder found no gender difference. So, there does seem to be a bit of evidence that, statistically, women might have slightly better memories but like all gender differences it's a very small effect. So this individual man and his wife are hard to be informed by the very messy science.

Chris - If there is a difference, then it must have some kind of evolutionary reason for being there. So what might be the reason it's there, if it is?

Kate - No, absolutely not. It could have a totally cultural reason. So, for example, there's a study that found that women have better memories for faces while men have better memory for cars and, presumably, the explanation for that is just that men tend to be more interested in cars and have more prior knowledge within which to slot a new car. So, it can be total societal and cultural.

Chris - But, at the same time, can you not argue that there is a genetic element to men or boys being more interested in certain things than girls. I have a son and a daughter, and my son - I thought we'd made a breakthrough the other day because he said he was building something with some lego and it was a tower. And I thought well that's good because it's not a weapon because everything else is a weapon. And I said what's the tower for and he said that it's for my gun. Whereas my daughter just makes houses and draws pictures.

Kate - There most certainly are some real genetically driven cognitive differences between men and women. Even infant Macaque monkeys - the female infants - there's some evidence that the prefer more delicate games and more motor skill kind of games, while the boys enjoy gross motor skills smashing rocks on ground kind of games.

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