Girls Underestimate Their Own Intelligence

Illustration for article titled Girls Underestimate Their Own Intelligence

A now-classic study found something curious: when they posed 5th graders with tough problems, the brightest girls were the quickest to give up. And apparently not much has changed.


So, why this difference in problem-solving confidence? Heidi Grant has a theory, and it's an interesting one. Not surprisingly, it comes down to social conditioning and the kinds of feedback kids receive — even unconsciously.

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice. How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their "goodness." When we do well in school, we are told that we are "so smart," "so clever, " or "such a good student." This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't. Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., "If you would just pay attention you could learn this," "If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.") The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren't "good" and "smart," and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

This is fascinating, but here were the lines that made a particular impression on me:

Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the Bright Girls — and your belief that you are "stuck" being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. This would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they're not.

Yes! This was me — and probably a lot of you, too. "Good" at English and art, "Bad" at math and kickball. From elementary school the chore became not improving myself, but getting to a point where I'd no longer be forced to do the things I simply could not do. If by some miracle I achieved a B+ on a Geometry test, it was not because I was not bad at it, but because I had somehow cheated fate and subverted the natural order of things. To this day, I'll pass the check to someone else to work out the tip or defer to another's sense of direction. Could I do these things? Sure — but I'm Bad At Them. I've read enough triumphant memoirs and cried over enough Made episodes to know that people can do things they think are impossible — but I always assumed this was either a sheer triumph of the will or a discovery of latent skills. I've assumed if forced to I could ride a trapeze or learn a breakdance routine, or whatever. But something I was Bad at? Never even crossed my mind.

Could it be that we're not pigeonholed by our formative educational experiences? Seems obvious when put like that, but I realize I've actually lived my life thinking that way. And maybe we don't have to. Certainly our daughters shouldn't.


The Trouble With Bright Girls [Huffington Post]



I’m not surprised about a social connection, although it somewhat makes me wonder why this only effects the math-based realms as this punish reward based behaviour is evident throughout any subject. I have seen a curving away from female students in certain subjects however, and I’d be more inclined to believe that is still a huge factor. In the same sense I have also struggled with male students in my social classes, and have even had some "but this is for girls…" comments over my couple years teaching. Education gender rates have become a huge issue in Canada (though mainly for the lack of males), and I’m always interested in not only efforts to help correct this, but ideas on why such exist.

I remember one of the biology teachers at my school mentioning that there was a link between the increase of iron during male puberty and how that lower iron can actually hinder math-based logic. Something about how before grade 5 males and females have nearly identical (or females have slightly better, it’s been a while) math/science grades. However once puberty kicks in, the male iron climbs while female iron levels remain about stable. I always felt this was interesting, do any of the more sciencey jezebels know of what I’m talking about (former history/art teacher, guess I didn’t take enough iron…).