Sex Roles, Vol. 54, Nos. 1/2, January 2006 (
Sex Differences in Simple Visual Reaction Time:
A Historical Meta-Analysis
Irwin W. Silverman
To test the hypothesis that the magnitude of sex differences in simple visual reaction time
(RT) has narrowed across time, a meta-analysis was conducted on 72 effect sizes derived
from 21 studies (n = 15, 003) published over a 73-year period. The analysis provided strong
evidence for the hypothesized change. In addition, the analysis indicated that the sex differ-
ence in RT was on average smaller with non-U.S. samples than with U.S. samples. No rela-
tion was found between the magnitude of the sex difference in RT and age or presence vs.
absence of a warning signal. Two factors—participation in fast-action sports and driving—are
proposed as having been responsible for the decrease in the magnitude of the sex differences
in simple visual RT across time.
KEY WORDS: visual reaction time; sex differences; meta-analysis; historical changes.
Perusal of the records for timed sports events
reveals two progressions over the course of the past
century. One is that the winning times decreased for
both men and women. The other is the rate of de-
crease was greater for women than men. Illustrative
of these trends are the winning times for the 100-
m run in the Olympic Games (World Almanac and
Book of Facts, 2003). For women, this event was in-
troduced into the Olympics in 1928; therefore, I will
use this year as the base year to compare the two
sexes. In that year, the winning time was 10.8 s for
men and 12.2 s for women, a difference of 1.4 s. In
2000, the winning time for men was 9.84 and 10.75 s
for women, a difference of .91 s. Thus, over this 72-
year period, the winning times decreased by 8.9%
for men and 18.9% for women, and the difference
between the two sexes decreased by 64.5%. Of fur-
ther note is that the winning time for women in 1928
was only .2 s slower than the winning time for men
in 1896 and that the winning time for women in
Department of Psychology, Bowling Green State University,
Bowling Green, Ohio.
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2000 was equal (within rounding) to that for men in
Considering these trends for the motor per-
formances of world-class athletes, one may wonder
whether the same trends held for the motor perfor-
mances of people in general. The only evidence to
date that bears on this question comes from a meta-
analytic study conducted by Thomas and French
(1985), which examined sex differences on a large
number of motor tasks in children and adolescents.
The study also examined across-time differences in
a number of these tasks, including three timed tasks:
dash, shuttle run, and tapping. Results showed that
male participants outperformed female participants
on the timed tasks, but that the change in the magni-
tude of the sex difference across time was not signiﬁ-
cant for any of them.
Other writers (e.g., Ransdell & Wells, 1999; Whipp & Ward,
1992) have also taken note of the diminishing differences in the
performances of men and women in the ﬁeld of track. Guttmann
(1991) has pointed to similar developments in swimming: “For 15
swimming events, the difference between the men’s and women’s
records was 12.41% in 1936, 11.36% in 1956, and 9.27% in 1976.
By 1980, the difference in the 400-m crawl had diminished to only
5.2%” (p. 252).
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