2011. Vol.2, No.4, 363-370
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.24057
Getting by with a Little Help from My Friends: Mental Rotation
Ability after Tacit Peer Encouragement
Sheila Brownlow, Amanda J. Janas, Kathleen A. Blake, Kathleen T. Rebadow,
Lindsay M. Mellon
Department of Psychology, Catawba College, Salisbury, USA.
Received March 12th, 2011; revised April 15th, 2011; accepted May 25, 2011.
We examined how Mental Rotation (MR) ability was improved by presenting information that the task was one
that could be accomplished. This information purportedly came from either peers or the experimenter. Men and
women students completed 10 MR items from the Purdue Visualization of Rotations Test (Bodner & Guay,
1997) and provided self-reports about their confidence in their abilities to perform rotations, background skills
and experiences, and effort with the task. The peer-presentation technique improved performance on MR, as
both men and women who read that other students had previously managed the tasks performed better than those
who merely heard about the tasks, leaving an implied difficulty unaddressed or “in the air.” When self-reported
confidence in MR ability was held constant there were no gender differences in MR performance. The results
suggest that appropriate peer models may improve performance on cognitive tasks, perhaps by increasing confi-
dence in ability.
Keywords: Mental Rotation, Stereotype Threat, Gender Effects
Success in high-status science and engineering fields may be
due in part to facility with Mental Rotation (MR), a cognitive
skill that involves the manipulation and transformation of
three-dimensional objects in the head (Voyer, Voyer, & Bryden,
1995). Research shows robust and consistent gender differences
in MR, as men rotate three-dimensional objects faster and more
accurately than women (Bodner & Guay, 1997; Cherney &
Collaer, 2005; Resnick, 1993; Voyer et al., 1995; Walter, Rob-
erts, & Brownlow, 2000). Research also demonstrates that MR
ability can be improved by select experiences that increase
efficacy beliefs about MR.
Hobbies, vocational pursuits, and leisure activities can help
develop MR skills. Most of the activities that are crucial to
rotation ability tend to be those that are traditionally in the do-
main of boys and men. For example, boys are more inclined to
play with models and blocks (Newcombe, Bandura, & Taylor,
1983; Voyer, Nolan, & Nolan, 2000), and later are more likely
to complement their play with academic choices in physical
sciences and engineering that also involve using spatial skills
(Bodner & Guay, 1997). Thus, from childhood boys more than
girls obtain practice and become more proficient with rotations,
further affirming gender-related stereotypes about cognitive
differences (Oswald & Lindstedt, 2006). Early experience is
important to MR, but not essential, as ability with spatial tasks
can be facilitated for both men and women by training and
practice (Baenninger & Newcombe, 1989; Brownlow & Mid-
erski, 2002; Cherney, 2008; Voyer & Isaacs, 1993). For women,
especially, the benefit of training may depend on how closely
the experience mimics actual MR tasks (Kass, Ahlers, & Dug-
ger, 1998; Roberts & Bell, 2000; but not Baenninger & New-
Beliefs about ability are key to understanding MR facility,
particularly among women. For example, if an MR task is
termed cognitive women will perform far better on the task than
if it is described as a test of rotation (Sharps, Price, & Williams,
1994). Because women understand that they are good at cogni-
tive tasks they expect to perform well on them, but because
they do not perceive themselves adept at MR they have a nega-
tive expectation about their performance, and their performance
confirms that expectation. Taking away a salient time constraint
may allow women to take their time, improving MR ability
(Goldstein, Haldane, & Mitchell, 1990; Scali, Brownlow, &
Hicks, 2000), and making explicit that women and men are
equally capable will also improve performance (Wraga, Helt,
Jacobs, & Sullivan, 2006). Thus, expectations about ability and
subsequent performance can be affected by external factors.
However, performing under such conditions may result in a
belief that performance is contingent on those external factors,
resulting in a dispositional attribution to lack of ability and
subsequently affecting beliefs about abilities as well as those
about members of a peer reference group (Smith, 2006).
Knowledge that others question the abilities of members of
your group may lead to stereotype threat (Steele, 1997), a con-
dition created due to anxiety that others see members of your
group as deficient in some ability. Stereotype threat can cause
poor task performance due to concern that personal capability
reflects the ability of an entire group (Steele & Aronson, 1995).
If you know the stereotype of your group, identify yourself as a
member of that group, and are concerned about what you, your
peers, or others in general will think about you (or your group),
you may fail to perform up to your abilities (Shapiro, 2011;
Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007). For example, a White man could be
concerned about his math skills in relation to those of his Asian
friends. If he believes that his own math skills can and will be
S. BROWNLOW ET AL.
judged in contrast to those of Asian men, and if he is concerned
that he is thus a representative of “his” peer group (in this case
White men), then he may fail to perform to his level of capabil-
ity (Aronson et al., 1999).
Both overt and implicit stereotype threats can hurt perform-
ance, regardless of whether the stereotype is accurate (Brown &
Josephs, 1999). The influence of stereotype threat is seen as a
function of race or ethnicity (e.g., Aronson, Fried, & Good,
2002; Gonzalez, Blanton, & Williams, 2002; Shih, Pittinsky, &
Ambady, 1999; Steele & Aronson, 1995), but can also be
evoked in situations where there is concern about ability in any
domain, including social sensitivity (Koenig & Eagly, 2005),
socioeconomic status (Croizet & Claire, 1998), academic inter-
est (Seibt & Förster, 2004), spatial relations (Brownlow, Valen-
tine, & Owusu, 2008), and athleticism (Stone, Lynch,
Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999. The influence of stereotype threat
emerges as soon as children understand stereotypes of how
people of “their” group are expected to behave (Ambady, Shih,
Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001).
An example of how stereotype threat negatively influences
cognitive performance concerns women and mathematics. De-
spite that there is clear evidence that the mathematical ability of
women and girls is equal to that of men and boys (Else-Quest,
Hyde, & Linn, 2010), the stereotype of female deficiency in
math relative to males persists. Such beliefs have predictable
consequences in stereotype threat situations. For example,
women will underperform on math tests when their math abili-
ties are questioned (Cadinu, Maass, Frigerio, Impagliazzo, &
Latinotti, 2003; Carr & Steele, 2009; Davies, Spencer, Quinn,
& Gerhardstein, 2002; Schmader, 2002; Spencer, Steele, &
Quinn, 1999). On the other hand, women will perform well
when they are told that a test is being used to gather baseline
data rather than to evaluate performance (Gonzalez et al., 2002),
when presented with a high-achieving role model (Lesko &
Corpus, 2006; Marx & Roman, 2002), if potential differences
are negated explicitly (Smith & White, 2002), when their abili-
ties as good students and research participants are noted
(McIntyre, Paulson, Lord, 2003), or when another of their
group member categories—one which is not deficient in
math—is made more accessible (Gresky, Ten Eyck, Lord, &
Several challenges to good task performance are likely under
stereotype threat. For example, people working under stereo-
type threat face increased arousal (O’Brien & Crandall, 2003),
concern of performance evaluation (Spencer et al., 1999), and
general nervousness (Brodish & Devine, 2009). Arousal in turn
leads to difficulties in concentration, thereby decreasing work-
ing memory and creating a burdensome cognitive load to an
already-demanding situation (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008;
Wraga et al., 2006). These encumbrances do not go unnoticed,
as people who fear confirming a negative belief about their
group exert more effort (Aronson et al., 1999), worry that they
may be making mistakes (Brodish & Devine, 2009), and be-
come overly focused on the task (Keller & Dauenheimer, 2003).
In sum, working under conditions of stereotype threat makes a
difficult situation more difficult, and may lead to a hypersensi-
tivity to performance.
The influence of stereotype threat on performance in any
given area extends beyond the task at hand, creating doubt
about ability in the future (Schmader, Johns, & Barquissau,
2004) and ultimately leading to a lack of interest in that area
(Aronson et al., 2002; Keller & Dauenheimer, 2003). For ex-
ample, a lack of efficacy (“it’s not my thing”) along with dis-
engagement (“and I’m not interested, anyhow”) together may
work in tandem to dissuade women from entering fields, taking
courses, and engaging in endeavors that require certain cogni-
tive abilities such as math, and perhaps MR as well.
Our research examined whether a stereotype threat could be
nullified by presenting examples of gender-specific successes
directly from either peers or from the experimenter, focusing on
how people (women or men) have shown ability on an MR task.
Nullification has been used to alleviate the negative effects of
stereotype threats concerning women’s math abilities. Such
nullification affords women an opportunity to perform better,
and thus we expected that women who performed MR under a
nullified stereotype threat would perform better than those who
worked with a threat “in the air.” Moreover, we predicted that
men’s performances would be less negatively affected by the
nullification procedure, as they would not experience stereotype
threat for MR. We also examined the influence of several
self-perception and background experience variables to MR,
which we expected might be related to MR ability for both men
Participants and Design
A total of 96 students (48 women, 48 men) volunteered or
received partial credit to participate.1 Each man and woman
was assigned randomly into one of three groups created by
manipulating information about the tasks, effected by providing
purported information from same-gender peers asserting that
the tasks could be accomplished (termed “peer nullification”),
by giving parallel information from the experimenter (“experi-
menter nullification”), or by omitting background about the
tasks and leaving a stereotype threat for women “in the air.”
The manipulations produced a 2 × 3 (Participant Gender × Nul-
lification Condition: Peer, Experimenter, None) design.
Mental rotation. Participants completed 10 items from the
Purdue Visualization of Rotations Test (PVRT; Bodner & Guay,
1997). The test requires an examination of a sample three-di-
mensional shape that is paired with an identical shape that has
been rotated along two orientations (e.g., right and down). Be-
low the sample shape is a test shape along with five different
possible rotated options of the test shape; only one depicts the
correct rotation paralleling the changes seen in the sample. Raw
score (correct responses), adjusted score (correct responses
minus incorrect responses) to accommodate guessing (see
Goldstein et al., 1990), and time-on-task were recorded.
Self-efficacy, self-handicapping, and perceptions of ste-
reotype threat. As noted previously, there are several media-
tors of performance under stereotype threat, including evalua-
tion apprehension (Spencer et al., 1999), self-handicapping
(Stone, 2002), nervousness (Schmader, 2002), effort (Cadinu et
al., 2003), confidence (Smith, 2006), perceived pressure and
difficulty (Aronson et al., 1999), self-evaluation (Keller, 2002),
cognitive load (Schmader et al., 2008), and stereotype en-
S. BROWNLOW ET AL. 365
dorsement (Schmader et al., 2004). Thus, participants reported
their perceptions about the tasks, their performance, and their
abilities along several 7-point bipolar scales, each with opposite
meaning endpoints (such as 1 not at all frustrated to 7 very
frustrated). Each measure used was adapted from previous
research, as noted above. Included were pressure to work
quickly, success with the tasks, enjoyment, pressure to be ac-
curate, amount of frustration experienced, “trickiness” of the
tasks, ability with problem-solving (MR and with similar tasks),
effort, motivation, task difficulty, amount of recent life stress,
evaluation apprehension, nervousness during the experiment,
fear of “looking bad,” belief about whether gender influences
ability with MR, similarity of problems to tasks used daily, and
concern about whether performance might reflect on judgments
about their gender.
Background experi ences. Certain academic experiences and
engagement in sports and various leisure activities provide
practice with MR (Brownlow, McPheron, & Acks, 2003; Voyer
& Isaacs, 1993). Participants therefore provided a self-report
about their abilities in four areas: sports, science, math, and
graphic design/art. Each self-perception was assessed on a
7-point scale (endpoints labeled 1 not good at all to 7 very
good). Students also indicated how much dance/choreography
experience they had, whether they had taken college chemistry
courses, for how long they had played collegiate and/or high
school sports, and the number of hours per week they played
interactive video/Internet games (from choices of 0-2, 3-6, 7-10,
11-14, 15+). Nullification Condition: Peer, Experimenter, None)
Participants entered a sound-attenuated cubicle, provided
consent to engage in an experiment on “laboratory tasks,” and
were then given experiment directions, which were also read to
them by a woman experimenter. In two conditions the direc-
tions contained the nullification manipulation. All participants
read, and heard, “you are about to complete several problem
solving tasks which involve rotating multi-dimensional blocks.
I’ll describe the example for you before you begin, so I can
answer any questions you have.”
The students in the control group received no other informa-
tion, because the foregoing instructions alone would cause
stereotype threat for women. Students in the peer-nullification
condition then read and heard:
“These types of block rotations tasks have been used here in
many problem-solving studies and normally women [men]
students have had really positive responses. Recent women
[men] participants from last fall have said: ‘Challenging, but
fun…,’ ‘if you concentrate and try it can be done well,’ ‘these
use the abilities that I use in everyday life…, and …non-
Students in the experimenter-nullified group heard the ex-
“These types of block rotation tasks have been used here in a
lot of studies of how women [men] do problem solving. I think
that you will find that if you concentrate and try you will do
well, especially if you tie the tasks to other problem-solving
you do in your everyday life. You will find them challenging,
but fun, and not stressful”.
After these directions and the presentation of a sample item,
participants were left alone in the cubicle, and instructed to ring
a bell to signal when they started and finished the rotations. The
time taken was recorded, and the participants were then given a
booklet including the efficacy questions, presented in one of
two counterbalanced orders across conditions, followed by the
questions about background experiences. After participants
completed their questions they were allowed to ask questions
and leave; full debriefing took place at a later date.
Mental Rotation Performances According to Gender
and Nullification Condition
To examine how gender and type of nullification information
(from experimenter or peers) influenced MR, raw score, ad-
justed score, and time to complete the rotations were separately
entered in 2 × 3 (Participant Gender × Nullification Condition:
Peer, Experimenter, None) ANOVAs. The means and standard
deviations from these analyses can be seen in Table 1.
For raw score, there were main effects of nullification condi-
tion, F(2, 90) = 3.15, MSE = 6.12, p = .05, partial η2 = .07, and
gender, F(1, 90) = 5.46, p = .022, partial η2 = .06. Men (M =
6.33, SD = 2.54) outperformed women (M = 5.15, SD = 2.51),
and a Scheffé test revealed that those students who received
purported information from their peers about whether the tasks
could be accomplished (M = 6.53, SD = 2.26) outperformed
those who heard no nullification information (M = 4.97, SD =
2.86), p < .05. Students in the experimenter nullification condi-
tion (M = 5.72, SD = 2.43) performed at a rate not significantly
Means and SDS for MR performance measures as a function of nullifi-
Stereotype Threat Nullification Condition
None Experimenter Peer Total
Time in s
Time in s
Time in s
Note: raw score varies from 0 to 10; adjusted scores from −20 to 20. Means with
different subscripts within rows, and those with different subscripts in the total
column, are significantly different, p < .05.
S. BROWNLOW ET AL.
different from those in the control or the peer-nullification
group. The Gender × Nullification interaction was not signifi-
cant, F(2, 90) < 1, ns.
Results for adjusted scores paralleled those just reported for
gender in that men (M = 2.73, SD = 4.93) performed better than
women (M = 0.31, SD = 4.95), F(1, 90) = 5.79, MSE = 24.12, p
< .02, partial η2 = .06. However, the main effect of nullification
condition for the adjusted scores was not significant, F(2, 90) =
2.29, p = .11, nor was the interaction, F(2, 90) < 1, ns. There
were no significant effects of gender or nullification condition
for time to complete the task, Fs(1, 90) < 1, ns, and F(2, 90) =
1.46, p = .24. There was also no interaction between gender and
nullification condition for time, F(2, 90) < 1, ns. Thus, per-
formance (raw score and an adjusted score for guessing) was
higher for men, but also in the case of raw score by type of
directions given to students.
Influence on Self-Reports of Performance and
Background on MR Performance
Because we measured several possible mediators of per-
formance, data reduction was necessary to combine similar
constructs. Self-reports of perceptions of the task and perform-
ance were subjected to a principle components factor analysis
with varimax rotation. This analysis accounted for 57% of the
variance and produced five factors; each factor and its loading
is shown in Table 2. We termed the first factor Confidence,
because it included belief that personal performance was good
(.86), enjoyment of MR tasks (.82), ability with MR (.81), task
difficulty (.77), motivation to do well (.63), and lack of frustra-
tion (−.59). The second factor was named Pressure, and in-
Results of factor analysis on self-reports of performance, efficacy, and
Factor Variance Measure/Loading
Confidence (24%) Belief that performance was good (.86)
Ability with MR (.81)
Task Difficulty (.77)
Motivation to do well (.63)
Pressure (15%) Fear of looking bad (.81)
Pressure to do well (.79)
Worry about performance (.75)
Pressure to be quick (.67)
Test Type (7%) Belief that women perform well (.57)
Degree that test uses daily skills (.52)
Effort (6%) Effort expended
No Stereotype Threat (5%) Fear of confirming stereotype (−.59)
Note: based on N = 96.
cluded fear of looking bad (.81), pressure to do well (.79), con-
cern about performance (.75), and pressure to be quick (.67).
The third factor was Test Type, which encompassed agreement
that women perform well on the test (.57), and degree to which
the tasks call on daily skills (.52). Effort was the fourth factor,
comprised solely of effort expended (.65). Finally, the fifth
factor was named No Stereotype Threat, and included lack of
fear to confirm a stereotype about the participant’s own group
A second principle components analysis with varimax rota-
tion was calculated on the measures of background and MR
experience. The analysis accounted for a total variance of 64%;
the four resultant factors and their loadings can be seen in Table
3. The first factor was coined Sports Experience, and included
self-reports of athletic ability (.85), years playing collegiate
sports (.82), and years playing high school sports (.78). The
second factor was named Science Background, and encom-
passed self-judgments of science ability (.79) and number of
chemistry courses taken (.56). Self-reported ability in graphic
arts (.71), and hours playing video games per week (.51) com-
prised the third factor named Video/Graphic Arts Background.
The fourth factor was labeled Math Ability and included only
self-reported ability in math (.89).
Relationship between Performance and Self-Reports
of Efficacy and Background
Factor means, after reverse scoring as needed, were calcu-
lated. These means were then correlated with the performance
measures (MR time, raw score, and adjusted score). The rela-
tionships among self-reported efficacy/enjoyment factors, aca-
demic and sports background, and performance can be seen in
Table 4. To summarize, self-reported confidence was the only
variable positively related to raw score, r(94) = .49, p < .001;
no other correlations with raw score were significant, all rs(94)
= –.12 to .18, ns.2 Self-reported confidence was also positively
related to adjusted score, r(94) = .52, p < .001, as was
self-reported video/graphic arts engagement, r(94) = .21, p
= .043. No other correlations were significant, all rs(94) = –.12
to .20, all ns. Pressure and effort were both positively related to
the time it took to complete the MR task, r(94) = .27, p = .007
and r(94) = .23, p = .021, but no other correlations were sig-
Results of factor analysis on se lf -reports of background a n d e x p er i en c e .
Sports Experience (22%) Self-reported athletic ability (.85)
Years playing collegiate sports (.82)
Years playing high school sports (.78)
Science Background(16%) Self-reported science ability (.79)
Number of chemistry courses (.56)
(14%) Self-reported ability/graphic arts (.71)
Background Hours playing video games/week (.51)
Math Ability (12%) Self-reported math ability
Note: N = 96.
S. BROWNLOW ET AL. 367
Correlations between self-reported efficacy, background factors, and
Raw Adjusted Time
Perform Well −.12 −.11 .27**
Effort .03 .05 .23**
Confidence .49*** .52*** .00
Threat −.03 −.04 −.13
Test Type −.07 .12 −.12
Sports Background .00 .02 −.04
Science Background .10 .10 −.01
Video/Graphic Arts .18 .21* −.04
Math Ability .18 .20 .09
Note: Df = 94. *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
nificant with this measure, rs(94) = −.13 to .09.
Influence of Self-Reports of Efficacy and Background
as Mediators of Gender and Nullification Effects on
Because self-reported confidence was positively related to
raw score and adjusted score, and time was positively related to
pressure to perform and effort exerted, these factors were em-
ployed as covariates in three separate 2 × 3 (Gender × Nullifi-
cation Technique) ANCOVAs, paralleling those previously
reported. The analyses with raw and adjusted scores used con-
fidence as the covariate, and the analysis for time used both
pressure and effort.
Confidence was a significant covariate in the analysis with
raw score, F(1, 89) = 24.54, MSE = 4.91, p < .001, partial η2
= .22; when added into the ANCOVA, the main effect of gen-
der was no longer significant, F(1, 89) = 1.30, p = .26. Nullifi-
cation technique remained significant, just as it was without the
covariate, F(2, 89) = 3.72, p = .028, partial η2 = .08. There was
no interaction between gender and nullification condition, F(2,
89) < 1, ns. Similarly, confidence was significant to adjusted
score, F(1, 89) = 28.71, MSE = 18.50, p < .001, partial η2 = .24,
and when held constant, the gender influence on adjusted score
was no longer significant, F(1, 89) = 1.33, p = .25. The effect of
nullification condition became marginally significant, F(2, 89)
= 2.77, p = .068. (Means are seen in Table 1.) There was no
significant interaction between gender and nullification condi-
tion, F(2, 89) < 1, ns.
Self-perceived pressure was a significant covariate in the
time analysis, F(1, 89) = 10.96, MSE = 15279.75, p = .001,
partial η2 = .08, but effort was not, F(1, 89) = 2.71, p = .10. The
ANCOVA did not alter substantially the findings concerning
the lack of influence of gender and nullification technique, all
Fs(1, 89) and (2, 89) < 1, ns. In sum, holding constant confi-
dence ameliorated the gender differenced in MR (measured
through both raw and adjusted scores), but not the effect of the
source of stereotype threat nullification. Students who read peer
reports about how the tasks could be done performed better
than those for whom the stereotype threat remained inherent in
Our findings demonstrate two key pieces to understanding
MR performance under stereotype threat. First, having peers
provide information to suggest that success on a task could be
achieved was an effective way of providing a boost in per-
formance on MR tasks for both women and men when com-
pared to providing no information about others’ behavior. The
same information purportedly from an experimenter did not
result in a significant increase in MR accuracy. The influence
of peer models to increase MR ability remained even after con-
fidence was held constant. Paralleling the findings concerning
the impact of stereotype threat nullification on women’s
mathematics performance, our data suggest that stereotype
threat was nullified during work on MR by the presentation of a
positive example (Lesko & Corpus, 2006; McIntyre et al.,
2002). However, we found that only a peer (rather than, for
example, a competent experimenter) was effective to increase
performance for women.
A second important finding focuses on confidence, or per-
formance expectancy, for women working under conditions of
stereotype threat. When confidence was held constant the gen-
der difference in MR favoring men was no longer significant.
Confidence was a function of task enjoyment, MR ability, lack
of frustration, belief that performance was good, framing the
task as a difficult challenge, and motivation to perform. Thus,
confidence may have been a function of a post-hoc (and accu-
rate) estimation of how well participants performed. That con-
fidence was linked to performance confirms that MR, like other
cognitive abilities, can be shaped by behavior as well as by a
situational factor as subtle as knowledge that people of the
same age, gender, and status in life are capable of certain tasks.
Because situation-specific negative stereotypes lower self-con-
fidence in ability (Cadinu et al., 2003; Steele, 1997), techniques
to increase confidence are essential to increasing performance
for all people, but particularly for women whose low perform-
ance expectations may lead, ultimately, to a tendency to avoid
the task at hand (Smith, 2006).
Our results also demonstrate a “boost” in MR ability when
encouragement was given (cf. Davies et al., 2002; Keller, 2002),
but less proficiency when a threat was left unaddressed, yet
present (Brown & Josephs, 1999; Sekaquaptewa & Thompson,
2003; Schmader, 2002). Group members under stereotype
threat who are informed in a subtle manner that people like
them are capable show increases in cognitive performance
(Ambady et al., 2001; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Shih,
Ambady, Richeson, Fujita, & Gray, 2002), a finding which
helps explain why women benefited from this information. On
the other hand, members of a non-stereotyped group (in this
case, men) can have their performances “boosted” under an
overt, rather than subtle, challenge (Davies et al., 2002; Shih et
S. BROWNLOW ET AL.
al., 2002). Because men were not working under stereotype
threat, however, they may simply have been responding in a
positive way to the presentation of information that the task had
been accomplished by others like them.
Whether the manipulation was noticed in the same way by
men and women cannot be discerned from the MR findings.
We provided four sample student quotes to research partici-
pants, each of which was a two-10 word phrase, buried within
the larger context of experiment directions. Absent a retrospec-
tive manipulation check asking whether these phrases were
recalled, an understanding of whether this manipulation was
subtle is not possible here; therefore in future work an assess-
ment of students’ recall of directions is necessary. Additionally,
students may have responded to two possible group member-
ship clues during the directions: their gender and their status as
research participants. Highlighting membership of a group of
good performers (peers from a participant pool), rather than
focusing on gender, may have created for women a situation
where performance was improved (McIntyre et al., 2003; Shih
et al., 1999). Learning the same information from the experi-
menter was not sufficient to improve performance. Or, women
may have seen previous (women) research participants who
liked the experiment as role models (Lesko & Corpus, 2006;
Marx & Roman, 2002). Although men were not working under
a stereotype threat, they may have bettered their performance
simply because they were rising to a challenge, already confi-
dent in their cognitive abilities.
One other key to understanding how and men and women
responded differently under the manipulations focuses on the
type of stereotype threat each may have experienced. According
to Shapiro (2011; Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007), stereotype threat
is not a singular phenomenon, as there are three possible
sources of threat—yourself, your peers, or outsiders. The feared
outcome of the threat could focus on any of those thinking
badly about you as a member of the group you represented.
Consequently, even people who are not strongly identified with
the domain in question could be prey to one of those forms of
threat. They would merely need to believe that someone (such
as an experimenter) would have access to information about
performance and believe those people value the performance
quality on the task at hand. Therefore, strong identification and
concern about the domain may not be a necessary condition
because of the worry that others will be evaluating you or
members of your group based on your performance.
Several background influences shown to affect MR per-
formances were not crucial to MR ability in this study. Unlike
findings in other studies that have employed the PVRT (see
Bodner & Guay, 1997; Brownlow et al., 2003), science back-
ground did not show a positive relationship with MR ability3.
However, the students in this study were primarily in their first
and second year of college and few (n = 20) had science back-
ground. Background in sports was also not important to MR,
although other studies have shown that, particularly for men,
motor performances require rotation and athletes may be thus
better adept at MR (Balentine & Brownlow, 2006; Voyer &
Isaacs, 1993). Other factors that have been shown to affect
problem-solving performance, such as self-handicapping, pres-
sure, undue cognitive load, and stereotype endorsement, were
not related to MR. Confidence may have been so important to
performance (or it may have reflected, in retrospect, a good
performance) that these other variables were less important,
either because they didn’t impinge on performance or because
the retrospective self-report used did not locate such factors.
Women did not take more time with the tasks than did men
despite that there were no time limits; students who took a long
time did, however, report trying hard and experiencing per-
In sum, MR skill can be improved in both men and women
through information that others like them have been successful
on a cognitive task. For women, this information nullified a
stereotype threat, allowing them to perform better than when a
threat remained available and not discounted. Men also per-
formed well with the same peer-related information, in all like-
lihood due to simple knowledge that others had accomplished
the task. More importantly, gender differences in MR were
related to confidence about task performance. Thus, appropriate
peer models may provide others with an understanding that
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1) Participants were drawn from a pool located at a college
with a predominantly Caucasian (84%) population.
2) The correlation between the performance measures and
confidence was significant for women alone, as well as for men
alone. For men, confidence and MR (raw and adjusted, respec-
tively) were rs(46) = .50 and .53, ps < .001; for women rs(46)
= .41 and .45, ps < .004.
3) For men, MR was positively related to the factor regard-
ing math ability (self-reported) rs(46) = .30 (raw) and .33 (ad-
justed), both ps < .041. For women, MR scores (raw and ad-
justed) were positively related to the factor of science ability
(self-reported ability and number of chemistry courses taken),
both rs(46) = .31, p < .035.