A research article about gender differences in memory suggested that women have better subjective memory than men. In other words, men report more memory problems than women do. Once the media started reporting this finding, however, the story became convoluted. Reports upon reports stated that science had finally documented that men forget more than women, and this gave fuel to a stereotype that it is okay for men to forget things because “they can’t help it”. The encouragement of such a stereotype by the media is especially frightening considering that the research on which this news is based on does not actually measure memory at all!
One day while at work I read the newspaper and saw a headline that read as follows:
«Men are the most forgetful: Now it has been proven!» (my translation)
This headline caught my eye, and I looked into the issue of gender differences in memory. I found that the media had largely been responsible for fuelling a stereotype where men are seen as forgetful, and that this was based on no evidence at all!
Reading the article and investigating around the topic lead to several issues with this news items, all of which I will address in this essay:
1) The media’s use of the word “proof”.
2) The research is NOT about memory, but the media portrays it as such.
3) The creation of male stereotypes in the media.
4) How the media ignores all previous research in this field.
1. The word “proof”.
Before even reading the news article there was a clue in the heading that suggested that the content was dubious: the word «proven». Scientists generally do not use words such as «proof», because it implies that a matter has been put to rest. In social sciences like psychology, the picture is rarely black and white. Published research will usually demonstrate evidence in favour or against a hypothesis, and it will not establish an unquestionable fact. Real science tends to use terms such as:
«This evidence supports the…»
«These findings highly suggest that…»
«This result makes it likely that…. »
Notice how all of these sentences suggest a trend, but in no way implies that this trend is written in stone. Using the word «proof» implies that evidence is found which is very hard to challenge. Even in highly established scientific theories, the word «proof» is rarely used.
2.The content: “Men forget more”
The research in question is a study from NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) in Trondheim, Norway, which was a subset of a much larger study called the HUNT study. In relation to memory, the study had supposedly found that men forget more than women. The research article in question is the following:
Holmen, J., Langballe, E.M., Midthjell, K., Holmen, T.L., Fikseaunet, A., Saltvedt, I. & Tambs, K. (2013) Gender differences in subjective memory impairment in a general population: the HUNT study, Norway. BMC Psychology. 1, 19, 1-9.
Notice how the title has the words “subjective memory”, i.e. how good the patients believe their memory is. Subjective memory here refers to perception of forgetfulness, meaning that actual memory performance has not been measured.
The memory measurement used in the study:
The study in question asked participants seven questions, all of which have the same premise and measurement. These were the items in question:
“Do you have trouble remembering…”:
“.. what happened a few minutes ago?”
“.. the names of other people?”
“.. to carry out planned activities?”
“.. what happened a few days ago?”
“.. what happened some years ago?”
As well as:
“Do you have problems keeping track of a conversation?”
The answers available were “Never”, “Sometimes”, and “Often”.
There are several aspects of this paper I could critically analyse, but for now what we will focus on is whether this measures memory or not. As you can clearly see, participants are only asked whether they feel they have memory problems, while memory performance itself is actually never measured.
It would have been interesting if the researchers had measured memory in some form and then asked how the participants felt they performed. This would give insight into both performance and belief of performance. Indeed, one previous study measured how well men and women remembered the location of items in the house. Men had the highest confidence in their memory abilities, but in fact women showed the highest memory performance (which is interesting because based on the HUNT study I would have guessed the opposite).
Doing such a measure would also give us the possibility to investigate if a stereotype threat exists in the population prior to a memory measurement. A stereotype threat is when a population is told something about themselves, and when they strive not to confirm to this stereotype their anxiety ironically makes them fall into this belief. For instance, if you tell a group of participants that women have poorer math skills than men, and then have them do a math test; the men will outperform the women. If you don’t tell them this, performance will be the same (Spencer et al., 1999). This same phenomenon could happen here in relation to memory, because it is possible that men possess a stereotype threat that women are less forgetful.
At this point I must make an important note: I am not dismissing the possibility that women have better memory abilities than men. Indeed, there is a lot of research available on this topic, but the take-home message is that any gender difference would likely be reflected in a specific type of memory. For instance, women have been found to have better memory for the location of items (Voyer et al., 2007), but we should not generalise this and conclude that women have overall better memory compared to men. Even if such a general memory difference was found it is important to investigate why it exists, and not encourage stereotypes.
3. How the media can create stereotypes in the population
The research article by Holmen et al. was published in October 2013. The first news site to report this finding was the Norwegian site Gemini on the 9th of December 2013. Shortly afterwards it was picked up by several larger Norwegian news sites such as VG, Dagbladet, and NRK. I would like to introduce a concept here called “bell sheep”, a media term introduced to me by my father, Ernst Knudsen, who worked in the newspaper business for several years. In a flock of sheep, there are usually only a few sheep that wear a bell. When they move, the sound of the bell signals other sheep to follow. This same principle can be applied to the media. As we saw, once Gemini had posted this news the other major news outlets in Norway picked up the story, using primarily the information posted in the Gemini article (some reported a news article that was almost 100% identical to the Gemini article, suggesting they did not look into the issue at all).
In January 2014 the story started going international, appearing in several foreign newspapers such as The Daily Mail (UK), Washington Post (US), The Herald (New Zealand), and People’s Daily (China), to mention a few. Most of these newspapers also used information largely based on the content in the Gemini article, following the bell sheep principle.
So here is the big problem: When so many news outlets report the same research finding it can create (or add fuel to) a stereotype of men being forgetful. Of course, it may very well be that men actually are more forgetful than women or vice versa, but my point is that this research article does NOT show that. It is only the media that makes this claim. Indeed, some of the news articles gave rise to this stereotype in their articles.
Here are some example extracts (my translation of Norwegian content):
“Is your husband absent-minded, forgets your anniversary or the name of a new neighbour? Don’t worry, you are not the only one with a forgetful man in the house” – Gemini, later copied and used in Forskning.no, ABC, Science Daily, Daily Mail, Washington Post, and IOL Lifestyle.
“A comfort for men who are getting berated? Next time your wife berates you for having a memory as bad as a wet sock, take comfort in knowing she is probably right. You can’t help it, you are just a poor man.” – Partisk.net
“For all those forgotten anniversaries, the times he forgot the milk from the shop and the names of your friends he can’t seem to remember, there’s finally an explanation. And it’s not that he’s an insensitive boob.” – Huffington Post
“Men are always criticized by women for their carelessness, and their tendency to forget things like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, or simply forgetting to take out the garbage. Recent research published in the journal BMC Psychology offers some defense to men, saying that men – regardless of age – tend to forget more than women” – People’s Daily
As you can clearly see, these news articles give rise to the notion that men cannot help forgetting things. After all, he is “just a poor man” (Partisk.net) and it is not his fault that his memory is “crappier” (Huffington Post). Based on no evidence at all, the media depicts a stereotype where men are believed to have poor memory. While this could lead to discrimination against men, it can also give men an excuse as to why they forgot something. You might think this is a minor thing, but imagine if the research found the opposite and women had been found to have poorer (subjective) memory: do you think the media would have portrayed it the same way? What if it wasn’t memory, but something different like work motivation, intelligence, or driving skills?
Regardless of what science might reveal on the topic of gender differences, it is important to understand why this difference exists, and that generalisations should not be made about one gender. Women might perform better on one memory task and men on another, something which can be explained through a variety of social and evolutionary variables. However, this is not sufficient reason enough to create a belief that one gender is different from the other, or that one gender should somehow be treated differently.
In our example of gender and memory investigating the credibility of the story is very difficult. This is because even science portals have reported this wrong! The Norwegian research website forskning.no reported this finding in almost exactly the same way the media did. Internationally it was not much better, because Science Daily and Medical News Today did the same, although the latter was more objective and at least proposed reasons for why the gender difference was found. I was glad to see that the award-winning PsyBlog pointed out that the measurement was on subjective memory, but the website nonetheless reported a story very similar to the media, talking about gender differences in memory. For readers without a scientific background it may be very difficult to read and understand the original research article by Holmen et al., so they may rely on research web portals which summarise these findings. When such websites get it wrong, the reader has no reason not to believe the news story.
In fact, the only news report I could find that were even close to thinking about this whole case critically was the website Bustle, which said the following:
“Before we jump on the highly addictive gender differences bandwagon (in 2011 alone, there were over 3,370 articles about sex differences) , let’s keep in mind that the results are based on the subjects’ answers — in other words, men reporting themselves as having more difficulty remembering name, dates, etc. Considering how much flack men are given (at least in the media) for forgetting, their answers could also be a reflection of how much they feel they ought to be remembering, rather than how much they are in actuality.”
And this is a site which appears to be primarily interested in fashion, lifestyle and entertainment. If only the rest of the mass media had been thinking like this.
4. How previous research is ignored
One final thing I would like to point out in regards to this case is that the media has ignored a huge field of psychological research in their reports. Several newspapers stated that this was the first time it had been documented scientifically that women have better memory than men. Stating that no research had been done on this topic before is a gross insult towards medicinal and psychological science. While memory research usually does not have gender differences in mind, research articles on the topic are plenty, something that is seen by simply typing in “Gender differences in memory” into Google Scholar. Most likely this misconception comes from a line said by Holmen in his original Gemini interview:
«Yes, it was surprising to see that men forget more. This is something that has not been documented before. »
I suspected that this comment was out of context, because if you read the research article itself you can find this quote:
“Only a few studies have reported gender differences in SMI, and most of them have either found no difference or a higher prevalence in women» (Holmen et al, page 7).
It seemed stranged that Holmen would claim one thing in the research article and another in an interview, so I contacted him about this issue. He said that he has tried to explain to journalists precisely what his research found: a gender difference in subjective memory, and not memory itself. In the interview he was talking about consistent gender differences in the SMI (subjective memory), and not memory itself, which had not been documented before. Regretably the media reported this as if it was gender differences in general memory that had never been documented before.
Even though this quote was out of context, it is important to note that even scientists can get it wrong. As I have already mentioned, several science portals were not critical to this research when they should have been. It is therefore important that you do not rely on just one outlet (this includes myself!) when receiving new information.
I hope I have illustrated clearly that the media has the power to change our attitudes and create/give fuel to stereotypes without any evidence to support this notion. Of course, the media may not have done this intentionally, but a lack of investigation and critical thinking can nevertheless lead to this result. You might think this is just a single, minor incident, but in fact this is a common occurrence in the media. Only a brief visit to sites such as Skepchick and DoubtfulNews will show you a variety of different stories about the media and their unfounded portrayal of a group.
The lesson here is: be critical of what you read, think for yourself, and investigate any topic of interest further.
Thanks to Rachael Wilner, Ernst Knudsen, Geoff Ward, and Jostein Holmen for feedback. Thanks to Jasper Wiese (jasperwiese.com) for making the banner.
Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M. & Quinn, D.M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.
Voyer, D., Postma, A., Brake, B., & Imperato-McGinley, J. (2007). Gender differences in object location memory: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14(1), 23-38.