Gas station without pumps

2012 July 29


In Out In Left Field: Systematizing in different dimensions: the linear, left-brained thinker, Katherine Beals posted a link to Simon Baron-Cohen’s Systemizing Quotient test, which purports to measure how systematic people’s thinking is.  The test scores show a distinct difference between male and female responses, but Ms. Beals points out that this bias may be built into the test in the choice of topics asked about, rather than in the people being tested.  Note: the test appears to be the real instrument taken from Simon Baron-Cohen’s recent book The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain, not an amateur rewrite.  Other tests from the book are also available on-line.

I took the on-line test, and as always with psych tests, I found that the statements to agree or disagree with were poorly worded, and I was torn between replying to the prompt as written or as the author of the test intended.

For example, “If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about the engine capacity.” Well, I don’t drive, so if I were buying a car, it would be for the scrap metal most likely, and so the engine capacity would be irrelevant, but the author clearly meant the question to mean “If I were buying something expensive and complicated that I was going to use a lot, I would pay attention to technical specifications.”  (Several of the statements were in this form, with different expensive things and different technical specs—one of Ms. Beal’s complaints was that they were stereotypically male purchases.)

Another example of a difficult statement to agree or disagree with: “When I’m in a plane, I do not think about the aerodynamics.”  Well, the first few times I flew I did think about aerodynamics, but there’s not much new for me to think about there now, unless I got into designing new aircraft, which doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, if I were to take an unfamiliar mode of transportation (hovercrafts, for example, or helicopters), I would be thinking about the technology involved.  So is this question about my thinking in familiar or unfamiliar environments?  Should a test like this make social-class assumptions about how commonly the test subject flies?

A lot of the statements require close reading, because they are awkwardly formed negations: “When I learn about historical events, I do not focus on exact dates.”  Others pair dissimilar activities into a single category: “I do not tend to watch science documentaries on television or read articles about science and nature.”  (I read articles, but I don’t watch TV—and figuring out exactly what is meant by “do not tend to” is tricky also.)

The sloppiness and fuzziness of the wording of psych surveys always irritates me profoundly, which probably tells you more about my “systemizing quotient” than the test itself is capable of.

Incidentally, the scores I get on the on-line Systemizing Quotient and Empathy Quotient surveys are typical for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, but the Autism Quotient, while above average, was below the level usually seen with Asperger’s Syndrome.  I don’t know whether or not I have Asperger’s Syndrome, never having been professionally diagnosed, but some of the informal descriptions I’ve seen do fit my personality. I have read Tony Attwood‘s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, which was loaned to me by a student who did have that diagnosis, saying that the book had the best description of the syndrome he’d found—some of the description there fits me, but not perfectly.  I suspect that different psychologists would differ about whether to give me the label or not.



  1. I got a 34, high for a girl, I guess. But, I too found the questions odd at times. I don’t go to movies, for example, how do I answer that one . . .

    Comment by geekymom — 2012 July 29 @ 13:55 | Reply

  2. I scored a 44 (and yes, I am a female). However, I think the bias in this test is overwhelming. The test seems designed to make women do poorly. It is not gender-neutral at all. What does a question like “I try to get out of household chores” have to do with systematic thinking??? Nothing! It is a question designed to separate men from women. And what was with all the questions on doing your own electrical wiring? How about asking if you sew your own clothes, an activity that is every bit as planned and systematic as doing your own wiring. I am disgusted by this kind of pseudo-science.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2012 July 30 @ 06:57 | Reply

  3. In school, the True-False test was always the bane of my existence, for the reasons you cite. The teacher would ask a question that was generally true but with exceptions. If I answered false due to the exceptions, the teacher would mark me wrong, arguing that it was more true than false. If I answered true, she would mark me wrong, arguing that the exceptions made it false. If she asked a question that I answered literally, she would mark it wrong, arguing that “you know what I meant.” But if I answered according to what it superficially seemed to mean, she would mark it wrong, arguing that if I had read it more carefully, I would have seen that it was actually wrong.

    It was all about having to guess whether the teacher meant the apparent meaning or meant the more subtle meaning or the one even more subtle…. The more nuanced and subtle your understanding of both the domain and English, the more possible interpretations you could see, some true and some false, and the more the expected value of your test score would approach 50%.

    Most kids with this problem probably ended up as programmers, resolving ambiguities, or as lawyers, exploiting them.

    Comment by Glen — 2012 July 31 @ 02:22 | Reply

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