A new study has shown that female intuition – that gut feeling you get that tells you not to walk down a particular street – can be traced to the effects of hormones in the womb.
Scientists have found that lower exposure to the male hormone testosterone before birth causes a person to be more intuitive in adult life – generally, this means women tend to be more intuitive than men.
Intuition involves an emotional, and largely unconscious, approach to making decisions and resolving problems – often seen as a female trait. The opposite way of thinking, known as “reflexive” thought, relies on conscious rational analysis and is more associated with men.
Scientists in Spain compared individual levels of intuition with a recognised marker of pre-birth testosterone exposure in 600 student volunteers.
They found clear evidence that men are more reflexive than women. But among the women tested, those who had been exposed to higher levels of testosterone were also less intuitive.
“What we found was an indication that pre-natal exposure to testosterone predisposes people to adopt a more reflexive and less intuitive mindset,” says lead researcher Dr Antonio Manuel Espin from the University of Granada. “Furthermore, this effect seems to be stronger among women.”
Study volunteers first took part in the cognitive reflection test (CRT), which measures how reflexive or intuitive an individual is. It consists of three simple algebraic questions designed to elicit intuitive answers that come automatically but are incorrect.
To get the right answer, participants had to stop, think about the problem, and realise the first solution that entered their heads was wrong.
The test has proved capable of predicting many behaviours linked to intuition, including belief in the supernatural.
Finger length measurements were used to gauge testosterone exposure in the womb. Higher exposure is known to be associated with a lower “digital ratio”, obtained by dividing the length of the forefinger by the length of the ring finger of the same hand.
“The lower the ratio, the greater the pre-natal testosterone received and, therefore, the more ‘masculine’ the cerebral disposition, regardless of the person’s gender,” said Dr Espin. “Men, obviously, have a lower average digital ratio than women.”
In the CRT tests, women with a more “masculine” digital ratio were just as likely to get the questions right as men.
The research is published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.