Time To Get Rid Of The Notion Of Effortless Genius

A really important insight about gender and performance, from Dan Willingham’s blog:

“A fundamental insight of the last two decades is that motivation is strongly influenced by beliefs about ability and achievement. If you believe that achievement is a product mostly of ability, then you are likely to believe that people with a lot of natural ability achieve a lot without having to work very hard.

A recent paper (Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne, & Hodges in press) examines whether such beliefs might account for sex differences in participation in STEM fields.

In Experiment 1, they examined how much effort graduate students in STEM fields perceived that they exerted, relative to their peers. The results showed that for women, perceived effort was inversely associated with sense of belonging. That is many women seemed to say to themselves, ‘This is so hard for me, I must not really belong in graduate school.’ That perception was, in turn, associated with decreased motivation. These associations were not observed in men.

In Experiment 2, the researchers created a fictitious field (Eco-psychology) and distributed a professional-looking brochure for a graduate program in Eco-psychology to Introductory psychology students. The graduate program was subtly portrayed as either male-dominated or gender-neutral. Students were asked a number of questions about it, including how interested they were in the program and how difficult they thought they would find it, compared to ‘the average student.’ When the program was portrayed as male-dominated, women thought that they would find the program harder, and were less interested in learning more about it.

Experiment 3 used an elaborate ruse in which subjects believed they were interacting via webcam with a professor from the Eco-psychology program at University of Colorado, Boulder. The key manipulation was that the ‘professor’ provided feedback about the subject’s likely success in the program (which in this experiment was always portrayed as male-dominated). The feeling of alienation observed in Experiment 2 was observed again, but feedback from the professor could undo it; if the professor merely made effort seem normal but commenting that everyone in the program had to work hard, the gender effect disappeared.” (Read more here.)

What I take from this is how important it is to discard the idea that people who are “really” smart or talented don’t have to work very hard. It’s a damaging assumption, and inaccurate—as Carol Dweck likes to say, “Even geniuses work hard.”

4 Responses to “Time To Get Rid Of The Notion Of Effortless Genius”

  1. Don Davis says:

    This reminds me of a failed study that tried to get female students engaged with STEM – it actually had the opposite effect (Betz & Sekaquaptewa, 2012). Those students already interested in STEM lost interest as researchers had attempted to portray female STEM professionals as hyper-feminine.

    The point being – students have to believe that they can succeed and that they belong in order to succeed – this plays an even more significant role than other factors (Margolis & Fisher, 2003; Teague, 2009).

    Perception and wishes correlate more significantly with career choices than do test scores (Tai et al., 2006).

    Betz, D. E., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi:10.1177/1948550612440735

    Tai, R. T., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., & Fan, X. T. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312, 1143–1145.

  2. anniempaul says:

    It’s funny, Don–I write about the Betz study in the latest issue of my newsletter, which I just sent out. Really interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Don Davis says:

    That is an interesting bit of synchronicity. Similarly, I was thinking about the Dweck study as well and had assumed I must have read about it recently on your blog. But then I realized I had read about it on Aaron Swartz’s blog. http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/dweck

  4. Bob says:

    Of course, people are still willfully ignoring Larry Summers’s correct and well-documented theory.

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