Reflection-impulsivity and problem solving skills in males and females



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No significant sex differences in IQ and achievement scores are present during preschool and early grade school. Yet by high school females consistently perform less well than males on problem solving tasks involving analysis, sequential thought and deductive reasoning. Numerous studies suggest that learned personality dispositions or attitudes may mediate intellectual performance. Specifically, Eleanor Maccoby postulates that the generally 'feminine' traits of passivity, dependency and conformity lead to a greater orientation to the interpersonal cues of the situation which actively interferes with performance on tasks requiring internal 'processing' or sequential thought. In addition, females exhibit a higher base level of anxiety in intellectual situations so that their performance is more vulnerable to frustration and failure. While recent studies indicate a tendency toward impulsivity under stress on the part of females, the present study attempted to measure impulsivity and its counterpart, reflectivity, within a theoretical framework which intimately ties this variable to the quality and outcome of the problem solving process. Specifically, Jerome Kagan posits that this process, involving the stages of encoding, memory, generation, evaluation and implementation of hypotheses, is highly dependent upon the fourth, or evaluative stage. This stage, defined by Kagan as reflection on the validity of one's solution hypotheses prior to implementation, is operationally defined by a dual criterion of latency to first response and errors committed on a match-to-sample task called Matching Familiar Figures (MFF). While consistent sex differences in performance on the MFF have not been found, the hypothesis of the present study was that the experimental introduction of frustration should indeed produce sex differences, with males adopting a more constructive and females a more disoriented approach to the task. Impulsivity under stress on the MFF might then provide a precise behavioral clue to some of the female's difficulty In problem solving situations, especially those presented In an evaluative context, 56 boys and 56 girls from third-grade classrooms were randomly assigned to one of two treatment conditions, one containing an anagrams task designed to induce frustration and one Involving a similar but easily solved anagrams task, designed as a control. Immediately upon completion of this task, S was administered the MFF, Analysis of variance revealed that females significantly increased decision time under stress (p<.05), while the performance of males was similar under both conditions. Additionally, females dramatically reduced number of errors committed under stress. While the original hypothesis concerning feminine impulsivity was not supported, it was postulated that the findings were consistent with the female's greater cautiousness and the male's typically counterphobic response to anxiety. Additionally, the number of anagrams solved by males and females under stress was assessed and a t-test revealed that the females were significantly poorer In their ability to restructure the scrambled words (p<.05). This latter finding does support the original postulate concerning the female's poorer performance under stress on tasks requiring analysis or 'breaking set.' It was concluded that the cognitive requirements of the MFF, a perceptual recognition task in which all solutions are presented to S, does not measure the female's problem solving behavior at perhaps Its weakest point, the stage of hypothesis generation. Further studies must investigate the behavior of females on tasks such as the anagrams task presented here, which require restructuring of the information provided and the generation of an original hypothesis.



Problem solving, Sex differences (Psychology)