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Researchers: Let’s delude women into thinking they’re better at math than they actually are

June 24, 2015

My latest  blog post for the Independent Women’s Forum:

Math is hard–but the “power of positive illusions” is easy

For years scientists have been trying to figure out some purely cultural explanation for the fact that boys significantly outperform girls when tested for mathematical aptitude–the key to success in STEM. The idea that males and females might actually be biologically different in aptitude is anathema. In fact, you can lose your job as president of Harvard for even suggesting that men’s and women’s brains might be differently structured.

One of the pet theories for explaining why women lag on math tests has been “stereotype threat”–the idea that women are told so often that they can’t add or subtract that they panic and flub their answers. But stereotype threat was blown to bits by researchers at the University of Missouri, who published a paper in 2012 pointing out that the studies that claimed to support stereotype threat contained serious methodological flaws, such as a lack of  male control groups.

But now there’s a new theory. Let’s call it “stereotype thrill.” The idea is that men in reality perform no better in math than women, but thanks to “male overconfidence,” they overrate their mathematical abilities–and thus choose STEM careers. The evidence? Researchers at the University of Washington studied several hundred college students and adults, and found that the males among them consistently overpredicted their scores on a math test, in contrast to the more humble and accurately-predicting women.

So, the new theory goes, let’s encourage young women to be overconfident, too:

“The discrepancy in overconfidence was less pronounced for women who reported positive past experiences with math — highlighting the importance of encouraging young female math students.

“‘Despite assumptions that realism and objectivity are always best in evaluating the self and making decisions, positive illusions about math abilities may be beneficial to women pursuing math courses and careers,’ said [lead researcher] Shane Bench.

“‘Such positive illusions could function to protect women’s self-esteem despite lower-than-desired performance, leading women to continue to pursue courses in science, technology, engineering and maths fields and ultimately improve their skills.'”

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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