Gender Effects on Mental Rotation in Pilots vs. Nonpilots


Mental rotation ability is identified as a fundamental factor in the ability for humans to navigate their surroundings. This ability has direct links with the conduct of aircraft navigation. Verde, Piccardi, Trivelloni, Guariglia & Tomao (2013) carried out research on perceived differences between the ability of males and females with, or without, an aviation background, to conduct the process of mental rotation. The aim of this article is to analyse the findings of this research and present the results of that analysis in a concise manner.

Mental Rotation Test

Table 1 illustrates results show that the mean Response Time (RT) of all males is 30% less than that of all females. The mean RT for all male subjects is significantly less than that of all female subjects. A similar result is shown in Table 2 (non-pilots) however the delta between male and female non-pilots increases to 43%. In contrast, when only the pilots are considered, as shown in Table 3, there is no significant variance in the mean RT of male or female pilots. Furthermore the ranges of RT for pilots, male and female, are significantly smaller than that for non-pilots.

Table 1
Mental Rotation Test Response Time Sense of Direction
All Males 279.6 ±147.0s p<0.01 49.1 ±8.6 p<0.001
All Females 401.6 ±361.3s p<0.01 46.6 ±7.8 p<0.001
Table 2
Mental Rotation Test Response Time Sense of Direction
All Non-pilots 509.2 ±321.5s p<0.001 43.8 ±8.1 p<0.001
Male Non-pilots 375.9 ±140.2s p<0.001 44.9 ±8.8 p<0.001
Female Non-pilots 657.4 ±398.6s p<0.001 42.6 ±7.5 p<0.001
Table 3
Mental Rotation Test Response Time Sense of Direction
All Pilots 180.5 ±60.1s p<0.001 51.4 ±6.3 p<0.001
Male Pilots 178.3 ±61.2s p<0.001 53.4 ±5.9 p<0.001
Female Pilots 182.4 ±60.6s p<0.001 50.1 ±6.4 p<0.001


From the analysis of this data it is possible to conclude that the hypothesis that a gender difference in mental rotation ability exists between males and females is valid. However, when data for pilots alone is considered the hypothesis is no onger valid as there is no significant variance in the RT of male and female pilots. Verde et al (2013) concluded that the gender imbalance is present in laypersons but is nullified through pilot training. This examination of their results supports their findings.


Research approach

Exploratory research into the perceived variances of ability to perform mental rotation between males and females with, and without, an aviation background.


The sample consisted of 79 members of the Italian Air Force. This sample was made up of 41 pilots, selected from training and operational units of the Italian Air Force, and 38 non-pilots from the Italian Air Force college. The subjects were matched for age, sex, cultural level and medical history amongst the pilot and non pilot subjects. Pilots were stratified for flying hours. All of the subjects were right handed. Table 3 below illustrates the breakdown of the 79 participants by gender and background. The sample included 100% of all right-handed female pilots serving in the Italian Air Force at the time.

Male Female Total
Pilots 20 21 41
Non-Pilots 20 18 39


A mixture of both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies were utilised to determine participants performance in mental rotation tasks and to ascertain individuals perception of the their own self-assessment of their Sense of Direction (SOD).

The Mental Rotation Test (MRT) consisted of a graphical target object and four similar objects, of which only one matched the target in all aspects except for rotation. The candidate was required to identify the correct pairing with accuracy and response time being recorded. Lower times represent a greater ability to perform mental rotation activities.

To graduate the subjects self-assessed level of their SOD and spatial cognitive style Verde et al (2013) utilised 11 Likert-type items with five possible responses (ranging from 1-Very Poor to 5-Excellent). Higher numbers represent a greater self-assessment of the subjects SOD.

Dependent variables. MRT accuracy and Response Time.
Independent variable. Sense of Direction.

Data analysis

No differences in the accuracy of the MRT were observered between subject groups. A direct relationship between the mean self-assessment of SOD and mean RT can be observed across all subject groupings. The original research article presented its data in textual form. This analysis provides a tabulated breakdown allowing the reader to clearly appreciate the results across the three main groups of subjects. A comparison of the RT results for pilots and non-pilots is also provided.

Generalization potential

All participants in the sample were drawn from the Italian Air Force. There is potential for the study to have been influenced by subjects having been previously selected through the military recruitment process. Therefore the findings of this research article can only be generalised to other military organisations.

1. Verde, P., Piccardi, L., Bianchini, F., Trivelloni, P., Gariglia, C., & Tomao, E. (2013). Gender Effects on Mental Rotation in Pilots vs. Nonpilots. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 2013; 84:726-9.
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Contributors to this page

McBride, P. (2013) 01384414. Advanced Aviation Human Factors, 190.313

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