The Dangers of Loose Talk About Genetics

When Larry Summers, then the president of Harvard, made his infamous remark in 2005 about “intrinsic aptitude” in explaining part of the gap between men and women’s performance in math and science, he was accused of making it harder for women and girls to succeed in those fields. He wasn’t blamed for hobbling the performance of men and boys—but maybe he should have been. According to new research, both males and females do worse on a spatial reasoning task when they’re told that intrinsic aptitude accounts for the gender gap in the test’s results—even though the gap favors men.

In the study, published last year in the journal Learning and Individual Differences, psychologist Angelica Moè told a group of 201 high school students that they would be taking a test that measured how well they could mentally manipulate imagined objects. They were also told that males perform better than females on this exercise, known as the Mental Rotation Test. Such pre-test comments are a standard way of inducing what psychologists call “stereotype threat.” Research shows that when women or minorities are reminded before being evaluated that the group to which they belong commonly scores poorly, they themselves do worse than if they had received no such reminder. Anxiety about confirming the negative stereotype hampers their performance.

But Moè went a step further. She divided the students into four groups and offered each one a particular explanation for women’s comparative disadvantage. One group was told that the gap resulted from genetic differences between men and women. A second group was told that time limits were the problem: women could do as well as men on the test, but they were more affected by restrictions on the amount of time they could take to work on it. A third group was told that other people’s stereotypes were to blame, making women feel less able than they are. And a fourth group, acting as a control, was simply told again that men perform better on the task than women. Then all the groups took the test.

The results: When women were given an external reason for females’ poor performance—time limits or others’ stereotypes—they did better on the test. When they were given an internal reason—their own deficient genes—they did worse. But the study’s really striking finding was that men also did worse when told that genes were the cause of the gender gap.

It turns out that genetic explanations for performance aren’t good for anybody: women are convinced that their inferior genes won’t allow them to compete, and men worry that they won’t live up to the claims made for their supposedly superior Y chromosome. “It does not matter if the genetic explanation is really true or to what extent it is true,” Moè writes. “What makes the difference is the belief that failures or difficulties are dependent on genetic reasons.” When genetic explanations are “really true,” we should respect them as solid scientific evidence. But loose talk about the genetic basis of ability—whether in speeches by college presidents or in hype-filled newspaper headlines—may well harm the performance of everyone, male and female alike.

Parents and educators can push back against such talk by emphasizing at every opportunity the malleable nature of intelligence—pointing out, for example, that performance on tasks like the Mental Rotation Test can be improved with training and practice. And test-takers can “prime” their own belief in flexible intelligence by saying to themselves, “I can do well if I try really hard,” or “With practice I will get better at this.” These aren’t cheesy self-affirmations, but truthful statements that will put us in the frame of mind to do our best.

Brilliant readers, have you seen people offer genetic explanations for gender differences in intellectual ability? What was the effect of such explanations on others who heard the remarks? Please share your thoughts.

8 Responses to “The Dangers of Loose Talk About Genetics”

  1. So many of the themes from “Thinking Fast and Slow” (Kahneman)percolate in this post. It is the sense of agency in the test takers that is key. When you believe you can improve and are capable of changing an outcome, your true limits are demonstrated. Loose talk is detrimental, yes. But serious slow talk on genetics enhances metacognition in these areas of performance and agency.

  2. Ed says:

    Science just does what it does. There are facts and then what those facts mean and should we curtail scientific investigations out of fear of how those results will be interpreted? The risks are just too high. An educated reader does not automatically assume that these findings reach automatic conclusions about the quality of life or possible achievements.

    • Sherri says:

      Can you explain what you mean by “science just does what it does”? Are facts really facts? Much of science is still speculation, and a “fact” is considered true if it is generally accepted by the scientific community. I’m reminded of the 3 umpires:
      “I call ‘em as I see ‘em.”
      “I call ‘em as they are.”
      “They ain’t nothing until I call ‘em.”

  3. John Bennett says:

    With regard to stereotype threat, I’d suggest that it’s more the information that is or isn’t said. If a person is told something that’s true in all cases, the anxiety or stress apparently impacts all. If nothing is said, apparently the “tales” floating around have impact. What is suggested that positive reinforcement has positive impact would be great to accept wholeheartedly. But I’d like to see a report of research on this. Might it go quite badly if the preparation was not done well or if the initial trials went incredibly badly???

  4. Amy says:

    When will we stop dividing our children by gender? If we give each all kinds of opportunities, along with encouragement, they’ll sort out where their talents (& personal genetics) take them.

  5. Rob Czar says:

    The study cited provides support for the idea that suggestion before an exam can effect performance on the exam. That principle is unrelated to intelligence including estimates of the malleability of intelligence. Many definitions of intelligence can be found, but if one means general cognitive ability (“g”) then overwhelming evidence exists for believing that intelligence has a very strong genetic component and it is very stable (it can be changed easily or very much. Try reading research beyond that which appeals to your ideology. Note also that the study results suggest that performance can be manipulated downward, there is no evidence provided that performance can be improved by suggestion.

  6. In part of our investigation into whole word (SIGHT WORD) processing, our team developed tools whereby we could measure the volume of information that can be processed at a glance. The rationale was that the more information that can be processed when looking at a word, the richer the memorised pattern that then is compared with known words already stored in memory.
    Our findings were that femals at the learning to read stage are almost 12 months ahead of males. That clearly suggest that Whole Language, being significantly based on sight words, discriminates against males.

  7. Pedro says:

    Did you see this new UK-study published on PLOSOne on the huge influence genes have on the test scores in school?
    Check the abstract and the very important last paragraph here:

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