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Gender Differences and Short-term Memory

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Abstract

Previous research has established that an estimate of 75 percent of people encounter memory problems as they age. Studies have also shown that although women reach menopause at an age range of 45 to 55 years old, they are still higher achievers when it comes to menial tasks such as facial recognition and verbal processing. I sought to determine whether women are capable of outperforming men when it comes to short-term memory tasks. The hypothesis was that due to their greater episodic memory, women maintain a greater short-term memory than men and are better able to recall facial appearances and item locations. Following a digit span test in the statistic software SPSS, analyses revealed no significant difference between men’s and women’s abilities to retain short-term memory, ​t​(2736)= .564, ​p​= .573. Females (​M​= 7.74, ​SD​= 3.247) did not maintain a stronger short-term memory significantly more than males (​M​= 7.69, ​SD​= 3.037).

Thus, the hypothesis is to be rejected and it can be concluded that gender differences do not influence short-term memory in any way; womens’ episodic memory has no impact on their ability to produce a greater short-term memory. Since episodic memory regards an individual’s distinctive memory of a certain event, there is no direct correspondence to short-term memory, which has to do with remembering smaller quantities of information for a brief interval of time.

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The Effect of Gender Difference on the Capability to Retain Short-Term Memory

Due to the aging process, memory-related problems are highly prominent, resulting in popular health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and memory loss. According to Yvette Brazier, a writer for Medical News Today (Brazier, 2016), memory problems reach a significant 75% of the human population, and compared to males, females have a greater chance of becoming affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. However, despite being prone to experience memory issues, females have prevailed over males when it comes to memory function, memory tasks, and verbal memory, since youth. Menopause and neuroactive sex steroid hormones are known as estradiol also affect womens’ abilities to memorize and learn. According to Medical News Today (Brazier, 2016), the different structures and functions of brain regions are affected by estradiol because the increase and decrease in estradiol levels impact how memory performance turns out. Women found it difficult to retain information and learn new subjects when their estradiol levels decreased during menopause, but they were still superior to men when it came to preserving and synthesizing memories (Brazier, 2016).

In another study, its results depicted that although memory decreases when women reach postmenopause, this decrease does not affect how much information women retain in comparison to their male counterparts. The study, which was composed of 212 participants whose ages ranged from 45 to 55 years old, evaluated the participants on subject matter such as semantic function, episodic memory, and intelligence (Science Daily, 2016). This study revealed that women who were at the menopause stage of their life complained about their forgetfulness and their clouding of consciousness, but they still scored significantly higher on the cognitive tests that were administered, compared to similarly aged men who also participated in the cross-sectional study (Science Daily, 2016).

Researchers have attempted to determine the truth behind the anecdotal evidence, which points out that men have lower episodic memory than women. This refers to the belief that men more often forget events such as faces they have encountered, places they have been, and words they have uttered. Episodic memory, which is a form of declarative memory, refers to events or facts that can be easily recalled. Asperholm, a doctoral research student, and Herlitz, a psychology professor, conducted a meta-analysis to dictate the consistency of the anecdotal evidence (Ives, 2019). Their meta-analysis, which is composed of 617 studies and over 1.2 million contributors, produced results that showcased women as more advantageous because they surpassed men when recollecting verbal information, such as words and locations (Ives, 2019).

In addition to anecdotal evidence, research has demonstrated that gender differences play a significant role in cognitive abilities. One study sought to determine whether females performed stronger on all memory tests, or if they excelled at the tests they had an advantage over by conducting a survey that examined a total of 7,485 participants (Jorm, Anstey, Christensen, & Rodgers, 2004). The survey yielded results that divided up genders in terms of the tests they have performed better on as a group. While females outcompeted males on test questions that involved symbols and digit modalities, males triumphed females on test topics such as reaction time and digit span (2004). Additionally, the survey showcased that individuals’ health condition, education, and background can influence their test results.

Prior research has also been done on short-term memory and its relation to age and the process of chunking words together. One study consisted of two short-term memory tests: one administered to 10-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and 14-year-olds, and the other was conducted on adults (Burtis, 1982). The results from both memory tests exhibited that when there was an increase in the number of words chunked together, the short-term memories of both children and adults increased, and this was due to maturation in their short-term capacities (Burtis, 1982). In other words, when children and adults were exposed to a constant amount of chunking, their development of short-term memory was essential in helping them store and put a name to all of what they saw. Another study consisted of an experiment that limited variation between pressed stimulus sequences and instead introduced variation in the length of words. The experiment consisted of words that were chunked together, including up to 7 words that were not chunked together (Mathy & Feldman, 2012). The results of this study were that participants were capable of remembering a maximum of 3 to 4 chunks of words, as well as the 7 words that were not chunked together in the first place (Mathy & Feldman, 2012).

Moreover, research has been conducted on not only chunking but also the effect of speed on item identification and rehearsal. One study gauged individual differences in storing memories and their methods of retrieving memories while taking note of the speed at which information was distributed (Dempster, 1981). From this research, it can be deduced that the rate at which participants of the study classified items and chunked words contributed to being able to process terms efficiently enough to maintain remembrance of these words when they are told to recall them (Dempster, 1981). To date, little research has focused on the role of gender in short-term memory. With this in mind, the purpose of this study will be to determine if there is a stronger presence of short-term memory retention in females compared to males, based on the prior knowledge that females possess greater episodic memory. The hypothesis was that due to their substantial episodic memory, women will maintain a greater short-term memory than men because they are more prone to recollect facial appearances and locations of different everyday objects.

​Method

Participants

The sample was composed of a total of 5,415 participants. 72.4% of the sample was female (N=3919), 26.7% was male (N=1444) and 1% preferred not to state their sex (N=52). 72.4% of participants were 11-25 years old, 15.7% were 26-35 years old, 7.4% were 36-45 years old, 3.2% were 46-55 years old, 1.1% were 56-65 years old, and 0.2% were 66-75 years old. 4,837 participants (89.3%) use their right hand and 578 participants (10.7%) use their left hand.

Materials

​This digit span assessment was administered within a Psychology Laboratory at Fordham University. On the computer, a specialized software called International Business Machines Statistical Package for Social Sciences, also known as IBM SPSS, was accessed and this allowed for the digit span test to be conducted on men and women in varying age groups. Within IBM SPSS, certain stimuli such as randomly generated digits were utilized when carrying out the experimental design.

Procedure

To obtain the sex, age, and handedness of the participants, a computer was used to open software that allows for the digit span test to be administered. In a specialized statistic software called IBM SPSS, or Statistical Package for Social Sciences, the “Analyze” bar on the top middle section enables researchers to click on and scroll to “Descriptive Statistics”. When Descriptive Statistics is chosen, click on “Frequencies” and input the variables of interest, which are sex, age, and handedness, into the “Variables” box. Then, click “Okay,” which appears at the bottom of the “Variables” box. After clicking “Okay,” an output file will be generated with the results. To create a T-test, access digit span on IBM SPSS and click on the “Analyze” bar on the top. Then, choose “Compare Means”. Afterward, click on “Independent Sample T-test”. Finally, input “Grouped Digits” into the test variable box. Once the “Okay” is clicked a second time, a different output file will be generated with its corresponding results.

​Results

To test the hypothesis, an independent samples t-test was used to examine whether gender differences affected the ability to maintain a strong short-term memory. An independent samples t-test compares whether or not two different groups are significantly different. In this study, it was found that the difference between males and females in their capability to maintain a strong short-term memory was not statistically significant, ​t​(2736)=.564, ​p​= .573. Females reported a higher mean rate and higher standard deviation (​M​= 7.74, ​SD​=3.247) but did not maintain a stronger short-term memory significantly more than males (​M​=7.69, ​SD​= 3.037). The larger standard deviation indicates that the data is more spread out, and these results suggest that gender does not have any effect on an individual’s ability to sustain a strong short-term memory. Therefore, the hypothesis that females retain a stronger short-term memory than males cannot be supported since the ​p-value is greater than 0.05, which illustrates that there is not strong evidence against the null hypothesis.

​Discussion

The hypothesis that women retain a greater short-term memory because they have a greater episodic memory than men cannot be supported. Therefore, it makes sense to state that while females have an edge over episodic memory and recalling unique experiences, they do not triumph over men when it comes to navigating their short-term memory. The results of the digit span test illustrated that there is no statistical significance since the ​p-value or calculated probability is higher than 0.05. Females, who had a mean of 7.74 and a standard deviation of 3.247, did not maintain a significantly stronger short-term memory, which indicates that gender does not affect the ability to conceive a strong short-term memory. A possible explanation for this is that although women maintain a stronger episodic memory, which is demonstrated when they are asked to recollect certain events or experiences, that does not necessarily mean that their memory is significantly better than mens’ memory overall. After all, short-term memory and episodic memory are not the same things; short-term memory can store information for only 20-30 seconds at the minimum. Another possible explanation for the unsupported hypothesis is that as discussed in earlier research, although females outcompeted males on test questions that involved symbols and digit modalities, males triumphed females on test topics such as reaction time and digit span. The results align with this previous research and add to the understanding that while gender does not impact short-term memory, genders can be divided up in terms of tests the participants have performed better on as a group. A weakness that was present in the study was the type of research method used. Rather than using a digit span test, other methods, such as surveys or even naturalistic observations can be carried out to better detect results. Also, rather than a singular method, additional smaller ethnographies can be administered and compared to the larger scale of results at the end. A strength that was present in the study is the sample size. With a total of 5415 participants, the results are more accurate than if there were just a few hundred participants. This large sample size indicates that there is a population being tested, rather than groups. Within this strength, however, there is a glaring weakness and this is because there are 1444 male participants compared to 3919 females participants. There is a clear majority of female participants and to reduce bias, there should be an equal number of male and female participants.

Future research can build on this study by carrying out experiments in the form of surveys, ethnographies, and observational studies to yield more accurate results. Also, future experiments should include a high but equal number of participants in terms of gender. There should not be a huge gap between the number of participants of one gender and another, because that produces bias and can skew results. If surveys are to be distributed, there should be random sampling, which will ensure that all individuals in a population have an equal chance of being able to participate in the research study.

Possible practical applications of the research can be applied in the health industry. The results of this research are significant because they can be moved out of the college psychology laboratory and into clinics, hospitals, or research labs that scientists are researching in. The study of the impact of gender differences on the capability to retain short-term memory can be exhibited when discussing possible cures for diseases and may provide welfare to the real world. Researchers and lab technicians can apply short-term memory to more specific cases of memory loss, and they may also apply the results to Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. There can be cases where a male may be exposed to brain deterioration, and researchers can decipher the parts of the brain that are damaged based on the loss of short-term memory. Also, memory loss is oftentimes associated with patients that have brain tumors, and their short-term memories can decrease strength after brain surgery, so it’s also essential for physicians to understand the impact of short-term memory loss on long-term memory.

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