Researchers have known for some time that humans have been getting smarter over time, but new research indicates this might be especially true for women. Researchers looked at group of 31,000 people from across Europe born between 1923 and 1957. They used data on how the brain processes different types of information to see if those abilities had improved over time. In particular, they looked at numeracy (ability to work with numbers and do basic math), episodic memory (ability to recall moments), and category fluency (naming as many objects, animals, or plants as possible within a certain category). Researchers then examined the performance of different genders, age groups and regions.
While all groups showed improvement as generations progressed, women showed the fastest rate of overall improvement. This was also the case within categories. For example, women are traditionally behind men in mathematical ability, but were found in this study to be rapidly closing the gap. Women were also found to be better than men in episodic memory, which is a finding also supported by other studies that have examined cognitive differences between the genders.
Researchers think these differences may partially reflect societal stereotypes that push women in certain directions. For example, stereotypes that women are worse at science and mathematics tend to make women’s performance worse in those areas. They also added, though, that it’s impossible to say how much is cultural and how much might be genetic.
The study pointed to the importance of living conditions in cognitive gains. Men and women who lived in areas with higher income and lower death rates had better cognitive abilities, but this was particularly true for women who seemed to get a much larger boost from improved circumstances. Some situations where men outperformed women, like in category fluency for example, showed men and women to be the same once social situations improved.
Researchers thought this might reflect the dramatic gains in educational opportunities and overall quality of life for women over the past several decades. However, genetic factors likely play some role in how different individuals respond to this environmental change and may still play some role in cognitive differences seen between men and women.