Psychology research has shown that men and women usually remember things differently. For instance, women on average are better at recalling emotional and social stimuli, whereas men are better at remembering episodes of violence and recognising artificial objects such as cars. The usual explanation is that men and women have different interests and motivations.
Now a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology has added to this literature by testing whether men and women differ in how much they remember of clips from rom-com movies and action films.Across two experiments, the researchers Peter Wühr and Sascha Schwarz recruited hundreds of German men and 80 women, mainly students, to watch a thirty minute clip of a genre classic. In the first experiment, this was either Die Hard with a Vengeance’s cat-and-mouse game between terrorist and embattled everymen, or the will-they-won’t-they love affair of Notting Hill. The second experiment featured clips from German versions of the French romance Amelie or the action flick Gomez & Tavares.
After watching the film clip, participants answered questions about character attributes, storyline, visual details, events, and places – essentially a film trivia quiz – and said how much they liked the film. Men in both studies showed relatively better recall for the action movie than the romance, whereas women remembered more of the romantic comedy than the action film. The analysis controlled for previous familiarity with the film, so this didn’t appear to be driving the effect.
One potential explanation for the gender difference is that women are paying more attention to romantic comedies, and men to the action. Wühr and Schwarz used the ratings of film liking to judge how engrossed participants were in the clips. Although women showed a relative preference for Notting Hill over Die Hardthere was no female preference for Amelie in the second experiment, and anyway, in both experiments, how much a participant said they liked a film was not correlated with how much of it they remembered.
Wühr and Schwarz suggest an alternative explanation: that when viewing a film genre that supposedly “matches” our gender, we build up stronger memory “schema” – that is, plot/event skeletons of “what’s supposed to happen” that we can then easily fill in, whether we enjoy the specific instance or not. They said this could be due to higher past exposure to films that match our gender, or to greater mental effort while watching a gender-matched film.
Whatever the reason, the research suggests that our minds are conditioned in a gendered way to process different kinds of stories differently. This is consistent with the idea that our existing interests and history prepare us to capture and remember personally relevant information more easily. This is unsurprising, perhaps, for technical areas – that a chess master could easily recreate a move sequence that novices could not – but it’s more remarkable that this applies even within mainstream, supposedly fully accessible activities like watching blockbuster films.