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Movies, memory and gender: Who’s best at recalling a film’s details?

20th Century Fox
Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis in a scene from the 1995 action film “Die Hard With a Vengeance.”

Going to a movie this weekend? If so, how much you recall about the movie will likely depend, at least in part, on your gender.

For, according to a recent German study, men tend to be better than women at remembering details from action flicks, while women tend to surpass men at recalling the finer points of romantic comedies.

The two experimental psychologists who conducted the study — Peter Wuhr of the Technical University of Dortmund and Sascha Schwarz of the University of Wuppertal — say this gender difference is not something we are born with. A more likely explanation, they say, is that society conditions each gender, through dissimilar life experiences, to respond to — and remember — stories differently. 

A pair of experiments

The study involved two almost identical experiments. In the first one, 80 women and 80 men — mainly students in their early 20s — were shown 30-minute clips of “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” a 1995 action film starring Bruce Willis, and “Notting Hill,” a 1999 romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.

After watching the film, the participants were given a “surprise” memory test. They were asked questions about each movie’s plot, characters, places and events, as well as about specific visual details, such as the color of a piece of clothing worn by a major character. Among the questions for “Die Hard” were “What is the full name of the terrorist?” and “What color were the trousers of John McClane”? The questions for “Notting Hill” included “What was Will’s nickname at school?” and “How did Will explain his presence in Anna’s hotel room to her boyfriend?”

The participants were also asked if they liked the films and if they had seen either of them before. 

The second experiment, which involved 93 women and 81 men, was similar, except the 30-minute clips were from the German-language versions of two French films: the 2003 action flick “Gomez & Tavares” (“Payoff”) and the 2001 romantic comedy “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” (“Amélie”).

(An aside: The fact that one of the experiments involved English-language films illustrates just how widespread bilingualism is among young Europeans.)

Findings and implications

An analysis of the participants’ answers revealed that, in both experiments, men demonstrated relatively better recall for details in the action movie than in the romantic comedy. The reverse was true for the women. They remembered more details from the romantic comedy than from the action film.

These findings held even after adjusting for familiarity with the films.

Interestingly, no correlation was found between how much the participants liked a film and how many details they could recall. For example, although women in the first experiment showed a preference for “Notting Hill” over “Die Hard,” in the second experiment, no similar female preference was observed for “Amélie.”  Yet they still remembered more about “Amelie” than about “Gomaz and Tovares.”

“Participants recalled more information from a movie when it belonged to a genre preferred by their gender than when it belonged to a genre not preferred by their gender,” write Wuhr and Schwarz. “This finding reflects the impact of gender-related interests on memory performance.”

And those interests are learned, not innate, as psychologist Alex Fradera  explained in his review of the study for the British Psychological Society’s website BPS Research Digest:

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. [Wuhr and Schwarz] say 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 recreates 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.

FMI: The study was published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, but only the abstract can be read online. The full study is behind a paywall.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/09/2016 - 01:20 pm.

    Just a small smirk here:

    The basic finding is no surprise.
    That the Germans had to do this study is no surprise.
    That the Brits clarified this is also no surprise.

    I really like the image of “event skeletons,” stored in our cluttered closets of the mind.
    Been trying to clean out some of mine for years…

    Great piece for the weekend. Thanks, Susan.

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