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Parsons et al. (2004) found that the widely reported sex difference in performance in the pen-and-paper mental rotation test could not be reproduced in a virtual environment:

The visuospatial ability referred to as mental rotation has been shown to produce one of the largest and most consistent sex differences, in favor of males, in the cognitive literature. The current study utilizes both a paper-and-pencil version of the mental rotations test (MRT) and a virtual environment for investigating rotational ability among 44 adult subjects. Results replicate sex differences traditionally seen on paper-and-pencil measures, while no sex effects were observed in the virtual environment. These findings are discussed in terms of task demands and motor involvement. Sex differences were also seen in the patterns of correlations between rotation tasks and other neuropsychological measures. Current results suggest men may rely more on left hemisphere processing than women when engaged in rotational tasks.

Since VR is much more prevalent now has this result been replicated? And/or is there more insight (say from neuroimaging) on the difference between pen-and-paper and the VR version?

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  • $\begingroup$ Of course there are studies using computerized MRT, but these can be as simple as questionnaires with multiple choice. I'm not sure to what extent the digital studies have been validated though. $\endgroup$ – noumenal Jan 14 '18 at 7:44
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I found a fairly recent redo of the "classic" mental rotation by Foroughi et al (2015) which also reproduced the "classic" results (unlike the study in my question):

Many studies have found gender differences in mental rotation ability in young adults when completing mental rotation tests on paper and pencil (e.g., Peters et al., 1995; Vandenberg & Kuse, 1978). Two previous studies have been unable to replicate these findings when testing mental rotation ability inside of a virtual environment (Parsons et al., 2004; Rizzo et al., 2001). We created a new virtual mental rotation test (VMRT) based on a full, validated test of mental rotation ability (MRT-A; Peters et al., 1995) that 128 participants (79 females) completed while wearing an Oculus Rift DK1. Our data replicate previous findings of paper and pencil tests of mental rotation ability: men scored approximately one standard deviation higher (d = .90) than women.

It's worth noting that the study of Parsons (and also Rizzo, which I didn't know about) both used ImmersaDesk 3D, but more importantly they differed in methodology from "classics" (pen-and-paper) in that in Parsons' or Rizzo's version wasn't a multiple-choice test, but just a speed of rotation test:

Additionally, in both studies, a base stimuli was presented and then replaced with a working stimuli. The dependent variable in these studies was the time it took to successfully rotate the working stimuli to correctly match the base stimuli. However, most of the traditional mental rotation tasks showing the gender effect use a comparison based test where a base stimuli is presented simultaneously with multiple working stimuli that may or may not match the base stimuli.(e.g., Peters et al., 1995; Vandenberg & Kuse, 1978). In these studies, participants must then identify which stimuli are correct (i.e., accuracy).

After stating their result is in contrast to Parsons' they comment/repeat that

there are many possible reasons for the differences in results. First, we replicated a full, validated test of mental rotation (i.e., MRT-A). Additionally, we scored our test for accuracy whereas Rizzo and colleagues (2001) and Parsons and colleagues (2004) measured the time to rotate a working stimulus to match a base stimuli. Second, we used a newer technology (i.e., Oculus Rift DK1) that may have had a higher quality or fidelity facilitating performance on the test. Third, the generation of participants in our study may be more familiar with technology (e.g., smart phones, tablets, etc.) as a whole now that technologies are ubiquitous. Future research should be directed at determining whether scores on the VMRT are predictive of performance on tasks inside of VE, namely tasks tapping spatial ability. For example, studies have shown new surgeons benefit from simulated VE training (e.g., Seymour, 2008; Seymour et al., 2002). Visuospatial skills are necessary to successfully interact and complete such tasks; thus, it would be interesting to determine whether scores on the VMRT predict performance on a simulated surgery task.

In other words, they reproduced the classic result by more faithfully sticking to the classic paradigm (multiple choice answer) in the virtual version. But it's also not clear how this impacts spatial skills the more usual ways they are used in a virtual environment.

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