First, look very closely at this car:
Now check out this owl:
Those were two of the images psychology postdoc Rankin McGugin and her coauthors showed to 227 subjects for their recent study of the effects of gender on visual recognition. They showed participants a number of such photos of machines like cars, motorcycles, and planes, and living things like owls and butterflies, allowing them to look as long as they wanted at each. Go ahead, scroll through a few more:
Then they gave each subject a group of photos, and asked them to pick out the one they’d seen before. Try below (no cheating by scrolling up to the top):
Ready for the answers? Scroll down — to keep you from glimpsing them while you’re still checking out owls, here’s a picture of a sleeping baby otter:
If you picked the car on the left (a Ford Taurus), you’re correct — and you’re slightly more likely to be a man. According to the study, guys were significantly better at recognizing cars than women were. But if you correctly identified the middle owl (an elf owl) as the previously-shown bird, you’re in the company of women — they were better than men at recognizing owls. Women also beat out men at recognizing leaves and butterflies; men were better than women at picking out the correct airplane or motorcycle. Gender did not appear to affect people’s ability to recognize wading birds, or mushrooms. And no word on who is best at baby otters.
This doesn’t prove that men are “naturally” better at spotting cars — other researchers had suggested that better mental-rotation skills might account for men’s car-recognition feats, but McGugin et al point out that being able to rotate things in your head is also good for recognizing leaves and butterflies, which women are better at. And McGugin told BuzzFeed Shift that while her team didn’t specifically look at the causes for the differences, “We actually believe that men and women use the same brain mechanisms to recognize objects, they just have experience with different categories. Expertise with different categories will depend on our interests, hobbies, jobs, and those activities are influenced by culture.” She added, “there is every reason to believe that if a women is interested in cars and spends a lot of time looking at cars, she will be as good as any men recognizing cars.”