It is difficult to understand why this should be such a formidable task

Thursday, January 30th, 2020

In the third chapter of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, while discussing sex differences in neurocognitive functioning, Charles Murray presents a simple test of visuospatial skills, the Piaget water-level test.

Go ahead and give it a try.

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question.

After you’re finished, go ahead and read the text below the diagram:

Halpern Bottle Tilting Question Diagram

The test-taker is asked to draw a line to show how the water line would look in the tilted bottle. The correct answer is a horizontal line relative to the earth. Halpern reports that the best estimate, summarizing results over many studies, is that about 40 percent of college women get it wrong. Effect sizes favoring males range from –0.44 to –0.66. In Halpern’s words, “It is difficult to understand why this should be such a formidable task for college women.” And yet the result has been replicated many times, has been confirmed internationally, and is just about impossible to explain as a product of culture or socialization (if you doubt that, give it a try).


  1. Ross says:

    It is possible to ‘overthink’ it and wonder ‘did the test maker mean what is the water look like when you tilt the *picture* of the bottle’?

    You could even make a case that it was ‘empathizing’ with the question asker.

    I dunno.

    But if these brilliant cognoscenti suspect college women simply have some sort of deficit understanding of gravity, it would be simple enough to ask a follow-up question — ask question that was purely in words…or ask a question with two photographs and the second one tilted and partially, etc.

    As ‘fun’ as these types of idiot questions are, it eventually reflects more poorly on the test creators and graders than the takers.

    (… And boy howdy, all this hard thinking makes me thirsty. Too bad I’ll never be
    able to get water out of that bottle, eh?)

  2. Kirk says:

    Comes down to world-view. Women are in this world with men, but they do not view or ideate it in ways that men can look at and go “Yeah; I see that, makes sense…”.

    It’s interesting, but were you to create a similar problem for testing that was female-centric, you’d likely do it in terms of “Here’s a person; here’s a situation with that person in it. Here is a slightly skewed situation with the same person–How do they react… What will they do?”.

    In which case, I’d expect that the women would do about as well as the men did on the bottle test, and the men would re-create the female performance.

    Female mind, in most cases, does not operate the way the male mind does. You can see this in navigation–Guys are mostly time-distance-direction, while most women are landmark-and-situation navigators. You find a chick that does time-distance-direction, and I’ll show you a lesbian. Maybe a deeply-closeted one, but a lesbian nonetheless.

    Anyone who tries telling you that people are just alike, and that “gender is a construct” is full of shit. Period. It would not surprise me one little bit if someone were to dig up evidence that men and women were actually two different species that were forced into cohabitation because the males of one species were killed off by something, while the females of the other were similarly eliminated in some grand cosmic joke. Because, I’m here to tell you, when you look across the breakfast table after 20 years, and you have absolutely no idea what the ever-loving fuck is going on in the mind behind those oh-so-familiar eyes, there is no damn way that we could possibly be the same fucking species.

    Hell, I can tell you better what my dogs are thinking than I can what the women in my household are. And, ohbytheway, the dogs are all female, too…

  3. Graham says:

    I never much cared for tests like that, for much the reason Ross suggests. Overthinking the question was always a problem for me.

    I largely also buy your point, Kirk. Though I wouldn’t always trust the legendary female skill at relationship analysis. Construct a question in which one or both of the people in the scenario are male and then see how well the woman predicts the outcome. That would introduce its own variations. I’ve never been convinced they genuinely understand us all that much better than we understand them.

  4. Graham says:

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to the eternal joke about how prideful men would rather get lost on the roads than ask for directions where smarter women would just ask someone.

    But it’s missing important points-

    1. Most men have probably been the hapless asker for directions who got poor directions from some local and vowed never to do that again.

    2. Most men have probably been the flummoxed local who knows his way around but can’t give directions quickly when stopped by a passing car in the middle of their own errand and with traffic maybe backing up.

    3. There are road maps and we can read them. Ideally, both in advance of the trip and in reserve during it. These normally suffice and avoid the problems of asking random people.

    I once really pissed off a well-loved female friend by noting the existence of maps, during a theoretical discussion of this problem.

  5. David Foster says:

    Many fiction authors do a credible job of creating characters of the opposite sex from their own…”credible job” measured by the fact that actual people of the subject’s sex don’t react with “well, that’s a ridiculous idea of how a man/woman think/feels.”

    Probably couldn’t be done very well with members of an actual different species…

  6. Blythe Guest says:

    The only reasonable explanation for an incorrect answer I can devise is that many people may not know what the phrase “water line” means, and it’s plausible that women are less familiar with the phrase than men.

    It is an imprecisely worded question.

  7. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    Very strange. I showed this to my wife. She said “OK, so it’s about a third full, so the line would be right about…” — and drew a line parallel to the bottom of the tilted bottle.

    I was certain she’d have no trouble with it. Reminds me of an old girlfriend: I asked “Do you live inside Rt 128 or outside?” “It’s left! Left!” She didn’t know if her home was East or west of the major highway she took to work every morning. How did she find Boston? The same way a chicken does.

    Neither of these women is an idiot by any means.

    @Ross — the point is that men and women fairly reliably answer *this* question differently. There are other questions, which are also if interest. If you can find more questions that they answer the same, or differently but in favor of women, that’s *awesome*. Sum of human knowledge, and all that. Many such questions are out there. I know curiosity is considered a sin these days, but that’s obviously crazy (more obviously so to men than to women, I suspect).

  8. Steve Johnson says:

    I repeat this observation all the time because it’s reliable but maybe not something that everyone has had the opportunity to see it.

    In large office buildings where the elevator banks look like this where a group of 6 elevators will have 3 facing each other there’s exactly one direction when you reach the lobby that leads you to the exit (the other side will be walled off).

    ] [

    ] [

    ] [

    Men will pop out of those elevator banks, immediately look in the correct direction and turn that way and leave. Women will – every single time – look both ways to get oriented before finding the exit. On the level of difficulty of the bottle test and women fail it *every day* then come back the next day and fail again.

  9. Steve Johnson says:

    As far as asking directions goes you have to think a touch deeper to get at the real reason for that sex-linked difference.

    Men avoid announcing that they’re outsiders on unfamiliar turf – advertising both weakness and outsider status – conditions that could easily result in death for a man.

    Women are the reverse – they want to advertise weakness and outsider status – conditions that could easily result in her witnessing a demonstration of which nearby man is strong and which man is dead.

  10. David Foster says:

    Of course, if *everyone* followed a strategy of asking for directions instead of figuring them out themselves, then there would be nobody to ask.

  11. 1) Students carry water bottles. If someone just runs the experiment and holds up his or her water bottle for all to observe, all get it right…

    2) I (male) did overthink it – it was too obvious that the water line is still horizontal so I figured the question is about if it is higher or lower than on the left. Basically on the right the area of the shape under the water line must be equal to the grey rectangle on the left – if it is below the left corner then it is the area of a triangle, if above, it is a funny shape that can be modeled as two triangles…

    3) I will show it to my wife, mother and 5 years old daughter. I am sure the first two will get it right and the third has a chance. Neither went to college. So there might be some kind of adverse selection effect in female college admissions? As it is really too easy.

    But I suppose my sample is not very typical either: my mother, despite no college is an expert on WW2 battles and my wife, who went to gastro trade school knows chemistry well because simply she got interested in what is the stuff food consists of so she read up on it. Neither are particularly feminine interests. But perhaps more importantly, I think college students these days, men too but especially women do not really go and learn things they are not taught just out of curiosity…

    In my mother’s case it is very clearly something Kemper said about status in the eyes of the reference group. When my mother was in high school her history grades were not too good, so she simply decided to put a lot more effort into it and it was right at the time they were studying the WW2 battles. So she got good grades and the teacher heaped praise i.e. status on her, if this thing got her status of course she went on to do more of it.

  12. @Steve Johnson

    Playing the Devil’s Advocate: it is possible that women look in the other direction to see if there is danger approaching. Or more likely a friend approaching they can chat with. That second is sort of what you would expect from empathizing-socializing and rather chatty people: scanning around for people to chat with. Orient themselves in social, not physical space.

  13. Asking for directions from a woman for me usually results in “one bus stop that way”. Yeah that is like 400 meters walking. Would they really rather just wait for the bus? But maybe it is not laziness but really about not really getting distances.

    BTW it does not work the other way around, men do use a mixture of time and distance and landmark navigation without being closeted gay. In the military they teach you how to find your position on a map relative to landmarks. Sometimes it is necessary.

  14. Harry Jones says:

    Another thing that can result in disaster for anyone, regardless of gender, is taking advice from the wrong person.

    Not everyone who gives directions knows what he’s talking about.

  15. Graham says:

    I found at times that I could not quickly remember the names or sequence of cross streets in my old neighbourhood, where I lived 16 years.

    That made giving impromptu verbal directions to strangers somewhat more challenging. Naturally, to navigate myself around that area, the names of streets were largely irrelevant.

    I wondered how often that exact problem is replicated for other locals being asked for directions, and what impact it has on the value of their directions for the askers.

  16. David Foster says:

    Dividualist…”1) Students carry water bottles. If someone just runs the experiment and holds up his or her water bottle for all to observe, all get it right…”

    You’re talking about *empty* water bottles, right?….If there was actually water in the bottle, hard to imagine how anyone could get it wroong.

  17. Albion says:

    There is an old joke about a country bumpkin, when asked by a lost driver which direction or route they should go to reach a certain place, replies: ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’

    In a way, that is a correct answer: essentially you have to be on the right road to have a hope of finding the place.

  18. Eli says:

    Graham, this hits the proverbial nail on the head. As familiar as the name of each of the side streets is along my daily commute, I would be hard pressed to list them all, and sequentially.

    And I have seen them thousands of times. I have asked strangers (male or female) for directions often enough to satisfy myself that this isn’t a phenomenon specific to me.

  19. Felix says:

    The old joke about men not asking for directions?

    Because men don’t want to look weak?!? Seriously? Concern about looking weak is a female thing.

    Others mention that asking directions is almost guarantied to be a waste of time. Well, duh.

    What is rarely mentioned: Getting good directions ruins the fun.

    Orienting yourself? Finding alternative paths? Learning the lay of the land? Driving in to an unfamiliar town with only a street address and going straight there by feel? Until GPS units appeared in all our pockets, these activities were one of the few ways a guy can have guy fun in the civilized world.

    And, yep, it’s a guy thing. Anyone stunned by very intelligent women choosing two sides of a right triangle over taking the hypotenuse has learned this.

  20. Graham says:

    “Others mention that asking directions is almost guarantied to be a waste of time. Well, duh.”

    True enough. But if I personally or my sex in general is going to get browbeat regularly for not asking directions, I’m gonna mention its pervasive futility and whip out a map in pre-emptive triumph, just the same.

    But yeah, driving around for the sake of it was once a pleasure of mine, and it was a pleasure as a kid when my dad would do that too. A feature of any summer driving trip, never a bug.

  21. Graham says:

    David Foster,

    Good point- one sees male and female writers capture a character of the other sex well enough, often enough, to be convincing. Though there’s often still some element of projection or wishful thinking in it, it can be low enough to sell the character.

    Writers seem to do that less well across the boundaries of less commonly encountered cultures, whether for their same sex or the other. The extra layer of sex and cultural difference together can flummox writers who would do better on more familiar ground.

    For another species, yeah. Every alien is just a facet of humanity. Even when we do sentient cloud beings or rock men, ignorant of our reproductive practices, concepts of life and death, or of morality, they’re still curious, intellectually and experimentally minded enough to want to test us. So not truly alien after all.

  22. TRX says:

    “I found at times that I could not quickly remember the names or sequence of cross streets in my old neighbourhood, where I lived 16 years.”

    I’ve lived in my current house since 1982. I can’t name any cross streets in my neighborhood at all.

    I see the signs every time I drive down the street, but I don’t remember them because I don’t *care*.

  23. Harry Jones says:

    When my GPS fails me, I start caring about just how the streets connect with each other. And then I figure it out. And I remember it, because I can learn and my GPS can’t.

    Thought is a limited resource. It’s stupid to think about things that don’t matter when there are things that do matter to be thinking about. A rational mind is a problem solving machine.

    (An irrational mind is a problem creating machine.)

  24. Steven JBC says:

    I’ve noticed that few women can use compass directions but instead use “left” and “right” which are relative to where one is facing; and also “up” and “down” but not in any consistent way. I think that in any community with a grid street system, compass directions usually work well; except in those communities where the street grid is skewed 45 degrees from compass directions. That’s the case in both Mississauga and Ottawa, Ontario; the first because of the Lake Ontario shoreline and the second because of the Ottawa River. My own wife has trouble using a map or map function because she keeps forgetting that the orientation of the map she is looking at doesn’t necessarily “line-up” with her surroundings, I have to physically rotate her before she could figure it out.

  25. Bill Jones says:

    My favorite was in Brazil many years ago.

    “You turn left where that policeman got killed last year and then right about a mile before you get to…”

    Not a nation renowned for its advances in the Sciences,

  26. Tom Peters says:

    I believe we need the “incorrect answers” drawn by the females in order to properly investigate. Anyone have the drawings?

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