A depressing new study has found that when they solve problems in groups, women tend to do worse than their IQ would suggest. The researchers aren't sure why this is, but we have some theories.
According to ScienceDaily, researchers started with a group of college students who all had similar IQ scores. Then they divided the students into groups of five and gave them IQ-test type exercises to do cooperatively. During the exercises, they told the students how they were doing relative to their peers. In general, the students did worse in groups than they did on their individual IQ tests. And those students who were told they were doing worse than their peers ended up doing worse still. Disturbingly, women were way more likely to end up in this underperforming group than men were, even though their individual IQ scores were around the same. Study author Kenneth Kishida points out that this could have implications for school and the workplace:
We don't know how much these effects are present in real-world settings. But given the potentially harmful effects of social-status assignments and the correlation with specific neural signals, future research should be devoted to what, exactly, society is selecting for in competitive learning and workplace environments. By placing an emphasis on competition, for example, are we missing a large segment of the talent pool?
The study authors aren't the first to opine that working in groups may not always be the best way to get shit done — in the Times, Susan Cain recently argued that our contemporary emphasis on teamwork might be costing us the expertise of people who work better by themselves. But is teamwork particularly bad for women? Stereotypically, ladies are supposed to be good at communicating and cooperating. And one 2010 study found that groups with more women in them did better at a series of cognitive tasks, apparently because these groups "demonstrated greater social sensitivity and in turn greater collective intelligence."
But it's also true that women get very complicated messages about our intellects. We're frequently told we're dumber than men, so any evidence that supports that — for instance, finding out that we're doing worse than our peers on an IQ test — may make us extra demoralized. We're also warned against acting too smart or too assertive, because this will result in being branded a ball-buster and dying alone. So women working in mixed-gender groups may camouflage their intelligence from the get-go. This could lead to a vicious cycle — ladies act dumber than they are, then get told that they're dumb, which makes them feel dumber than ever, which in turn makes them do worse on intelligence tests. In addition to being depressing as shit, this possibility should tell us a couple of things. First, as the study authors note, intelligence doesn't exist in a vacuum. Says study coauthor Steven Quartz,
This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed. Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.
Second, group dynamics appear to be just one more way that intelligence stigma can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once someone starts to feel dumb in relation to her peers, her performance begins to suffer, and presumably, so does that of the group (which might be why none of the groups did as well as their members did on their own). The solution to this isn't a matter of artificially puffing up people's egos, since according to the study authors, everyone in the study was actually pretty smart individually. Instead, it's a matter of figuring out how people can work together to build each other up, not dumb each other down.
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