The Trouble with Bright Girls (article @ the Huffington Post)
My graduate advisor, psychologist Carol Dweck (author of "Mindset") conducted a series of studies in the 1980s, looking at how Bright Girls and boys in the fifth grade handled new, difficult and confusing material.
She found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls' IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.
The topic of this article seems to relate to several common Less Wrong issues: the nature of human intelligence, and the gender imbalance among LW readers.
I'm not sure how much credence I give to the proposed explanation of the difference in mindsets. It may well have to do with socialization and feedback, but the specific description of feedback that is presented seems a bit too much of a "just-so story" to me. The difference itself is fascinating, though, and I hope more is done to further our understanding of it.
Although I didn't actually figure out the pattern until a couple of years ago, being in the physical presence of other human beings makes some of my orthogonal skills evaporate or sharply deteriorate. This is most notable with spatial organization skills (you would not believe how much stuff I can pack away into limited space... when no one is watching...) but applies to many other things, too.
I can accomplish a great many things, especially unfamiliar things, only when there is no help available. To the point where there was a period in my teens where I was new to cooking, and could only cook if my mother was not home, because if she was home, I would find the need to run to her 15 times asking where stuff was, how stuff worked, why the recipe said X, etc. Sometimes she became too fed up with me to answer the questions, or wouldn't know the answers, or would be too busy to engage with me at all, and this would render me completely helpless to do anything but turn all the heat sources off and flee. If she was not home, it never occurred to me to give up and wait for her return before proceeding with my task, and I'd look a little harder, scrutinze the appliance menus a little longer, apply my knowledge of how food interacts a little more diligently - and would produce perfectly fine food. I will also not learn routes around a neighborhood unless I walk them by myself - I can walk the same route with company a hundred times and then have no idea where the hell I am if I go alone the hundred and first.
My poorly-founded speculation: Girls may be more likely to try to solve problems with help from fellow humans. This help is unlikely to be available in a controlled study. (It's also frowned upon or unavailable in a number of academic or professional contexts.) Controlled studies are, however, likely to have humans present, blocking the bits that step up and say "okay, I'm doing this by myself now".
That's a curious hypothesis. The corollary of the "males are incapable of asking for directions" stereotype could be the stereotype "females are incapable of navigating without asking for directions".
Unfortunately, I can only offer evidence of the "non-ravens are non-black" variety, but that could still be useful.
My experience as a cis male: I have found that at my programming job, where many things are rather unfamiliar, I will spend about 15-60 minutes looking something up rather than ask someone for an answer (which will take about 1 minute). I have also done the directions thing ("We don't need to ask, I'll figure it out!"). I believe my internal motivation is I think I will learn it more strongly / discover other interesting things if I look it up myself, and I perceive some small status loss in looking for help / I don't like bothering other people.
 Something else I should add- I don't appear to have a strong fear of failing. I will blurt out objections in class, and be right more than I'm wrong, but I can shrug off being wrong. It seems likely that this is linked to emotional and reputational security. (There's also significant research showing that men are more likely to guess if they don't know something than just respond that they don't know it, whereas women are more likely to take the opposite approach.)
Which will take one minute, but has a high chance of knocking them out of the "zone", and regaining focus can easily take 15-20 minutes...
Right- that's part of my desire to not bother people. But oftentimes at least one person who could help will be already bothered, and so that's not actually a cost (but I act like it is).
I experience this, especially with parents. Their mere presence makes me less communicative and attentive as well. Might it be considered (or already exist as) a bias worth investigating and canonizing?
Sounds like a learned behavioral model - just about everyone acts differently around their parents than their peers. That's only to be expected, since your peers will expect you to behave differently towards them than to your parents. So we learn to behave differently around them, which may also involve deeper effects like different ways of thinking around them.
Did your parents (implicitly or explicitly) discourage communicative and attentive behavior when you were growing up?
I don't think it's a bias. It's not about reasoning. But it's an interesting performance-inhibiting factor.
I haven't heard of anyone else with the pattern you had for cooking, but I've heard more than one person say that they can't learn routes unless they're in charge of navigating. IIRC, one of them was a man who was the best navigator (serious about using maps, excellent long term memory for how to get to places he'd only gone to once) I've known.
For me it's not so much "there is no help available" that spurs me to try things as "no one will ever know if I fail". If I think I may break something by trying it, I'm much more likely to ask for help. If someone knows I am trying something, it will be embarrassing to fail. Even worse if someone will not only know, but be annoyed that I've bungled it when they have to fix it!
I'm also hesitant to speak up unless I'm sure of what I'm saying (because how dare I take up others' time by being wrong?), which means people who are quick to blurt out their ideas without double- and triple-checking are faster to respond--so I'm only heard when I have something to say that I'm confident of and that no one else has yet thought of. It's a little bit dispiriting to have the same knowledge as others and never get to show evidence of it.
I don't enjoy asking for help--I'd rather figure things out myself--but I hate being recognized for screwing something up more.
I find attention very helpful in cases where the limiting factor is not my ability, but my akrasia. I need to feel like my audience would jump on me if I didn't update a chapter of my fiction when I said I would; in school, I needed to expect my teachers to notice and care if I didn't show up to class (this meant I got very little academic value out of my semester abroad, since they didn't, so I didn't); etc. But when I don't know quite what I'm doing in some minor-but-essential way, having help handy ensures that I will not learn to do it.
This sounds like my experience, at least some of the time. I am male, for what it's worth.
I've noticed a sort of similar effect with old-fashioned adventure games (the kind that LucasArts and Sierra used to make). The existence of the Internet and GameFAQs has effectively ruined that genre for me. Part of the fun was spending hours on end frustrated when you couldn't solve a certain puzzle, only to finally come up with the solution and get a major feeling of accomplishment. These days it's far too easy to search the web for a solution whenever one starts feeling in the least bit frustrated. (And then when you have the walkthrough open, look up the solutions for the rest of the puzzles as well...)
I've also noticed that if I'm solving math problems and a complete model solution exists, I'm far more likely to give up early and look up the right way of doing it. If there were no such solution available, I might work on it far longer and eventually solve it myself.
A somewhat promising approach I've been experimenting on is to tell myself that no matter what, I need to work on this set of math problems for at least (say) an hour. That reduces the incentive to cheat, since I know that it won't save me any time. The hard part is in actually sticking to this.
I've noticed this as well, although it doesn't seem to apply in all cases. Here's a guess about the distinction between cases:
Although I have no idea how representative I am, I'll add that as a male, I suffer the same issues.
A (female) mathematician friend of mine has often complained about the responses she often gets to her gender in her field; often she feels that others expect her to be incompetent until (and sometimes despite) being proven otherwise. The interesting thing is, she's seen other women internalize this, resulting in "impostor syndrome": effectively, no matter how well they do, they feel they don't really understand the material, that they only got as far as they did by fluke, and that it'll all come crashing down around them at any time. The interesting part is these women seem to do particularly well (barring nervous breakdowns) because they believe their abilities are not innate, and so they work much harder than they actually have to.
I think the same is true of men, albeit (based on this article) to a lesser extent. I coasted through most of my childhood on simply being smart, and it was only when I started forcing myself into difficult situations that I learned to actually develop abilities I didn't have automatically. This is why I'm skeptical about "gifted" programmes: they segregate children based on innate talents, rather than emphasizing hard work and dedication, and that seems to leave a lot of otherwise intelligent people unable to cope with day-to-day existence outside the world of academia.
I might have expected that 'gifted' programmes would do the opposite, by putting children in an environment where their natural talents are nothing special you force them to actually put in some effort.
Although I've never been in one myself, so I guess it depends on the atmosphere;if its all about giving them easy challenges and making them feel good about themselves then you have a point, if the emphasis is more about winning and rewarding those who stick out from the crowd even in that situation, then maybe not.
I am currently a college student in a gifted program, and was in them all through elementary, middle, and high school. My experience has been that it wasn't rewarding easy challenges, quite the contrary. The teachers I've had have been thrilled at having students that actually can handle a complex problem. They've mostly liked the challenge we provided. Although, for a few of my years, I've had teachers that genuinely were not as intelligent as the average student in the classroom. They had more factual knowledge, but not the actual thinking skills. Those years were rough.
My only major complaint about those classes was that the problems, in many cases, weren't challenging enough. The teachers would pick complex topics for us to untangle, but the problem solving process typically took around 30 seconds. We very seldom did anything that required thinking for minutes. Nothing "impossible". And we totally could have done those.
I would include that can be done in 30 seconds in the category of 'easy challenges', even if it would be quite hard for most people. Easiness is relative.
I agree. I tried to avoid phrasing it as "hard", instead going with "complex". What we were doing would have been extremely difficult for a lot of other students I know, but weren't very difficult for us.
Out of interest, do you have any idea whether you think you would be more or less hard-working had you not been in those classes?
Hmm. Probably less. Not because the classes I actually took genuinely taught me how to work hard, but because if I hadn't been in those classes I would have been able to get by with even less effort.
Not just the atmosphere-- the skill with which the gifted program is designed.
And some gifted programs are worse than what you imagined-- they just pile busywork on the students.
Developing good gifted programs is a hard (or if you prefer, complex) problem. I'd start by surveyed students and graduates from gifted programs about the their take on the value of various parts of the programs.
This is precisely why I endorse gifted programs.
No matter how much one values or promotes hard work as the road to achievement I think actually having to work harder to achieve "good results" imparts the lesson much better.
The greater problem is that talented children might get distorted ideas about what the average person is capable of. I have to constantly remind myself that the average person isn't slightly above high school level because I've spent so much time in academia that even that seem almost too low to believe. Many people here probably spend days or weeks without ever talking to someone who is below 100, and don't associate or work with people bellow 130. Its useful to remind myself that the average is determined by the adults my classmates in primary school turned into (on a meta-level I of course realize the school was attended by many more children from poor backgrounds than the norm)
Impostor syndrome is pretty common among men too, in my experience. It may still be more common in women, but I'm not sure.
Yes, this should definitely be taken into account. In fact, given the present state of many fields, I'm sure that for many people in academia the "impostor syndrome" is just a true realization that their work is worthless.
Impostor syndrome is fairly common indeed.
Aside from being socialized to expect to be bad at analytical problems, I'd suggest (from aggregate reading about stereotype threat, feminist issues, and my experiences growing up) that part of the issue is that there's a lot of fear of being seen to try hard and fail. It's perfectly socially acceptable (unfortunately) for a young woman to doubt her own abilities to solve a problem and in so doing, decline to try it. However, if she's seen struggling with something, she's likely to encounter derision, with the implicit or explicit statement that she's reaching out of her depth. A self-effacing attitude, or the semblance of it, is socially necessary, because while young women are allowed to be Smart, they are not allowed to be Arrogant. I can provide references for these points if needed, though I believe it's pretty familiar ground for those at all versed in gender socialization norms.
Into purely personal territory now - take as you will - there was a time (around 4th grade through perhaps 10th) when I was that afraid of failing. If I tried a novel problem (even if no one else understood it), and couldn't immediately figure out what to do to solve it, my (male) peers jumped in with taunts along the lines of "she's not so smart after all." There were several years where it felt like any major failure would utterly ruin my credibility as a Bright Girl. It was far easier to assess the difficulty of a new problem, and quietly decline if I didn't think I could handle it.
Concerning the gender imbalance on the nerd spaces of the internet, I could probably go on all night about it, but I'm about to pass out and start drooling on my keyboard. Maybe I will go on all night about it in a separate post on a separate night.
I find that kind of interesting, since my mom's similar behavior comes off as extremely arrogant to me. Electronics and computer software of any kind are the Domain of Men, and any problems she has with them are our responsibility to solve, no matter how many thousands of hours she's been using a particular system and no matter how unfamiliar it is to us. If you try to guide her toward figuring something out herself, she'll eventually grin and throw up her hands and say "Confusing! Confusing!" and repeat the request just do it for her.
On further thought it's not strictly about doing things for her, but when she wants to know how to do something she wants specific, step-by-step instructions without trying to explain why those steps work (doing that will immediately trigger "Confusing! Confusing!"); i.e. "How do I check text messages on this phone which I've been using for years and which has simple and clearly labeled menus?".
...I'm probably using a thread as an excuse to vent again, but GIFT.
I rather suspect my mother (or anyone else that wasn't paying me a lot of money) would soon find that behaviour of that kind would rapidly lead to my disinclination to provide assistance. They can either show some respect and courtesy or follow the flowchart themselves.
Mind you I am willing to adjust my teaching to suit individual learning styles. Some people just really do suck at understanding how steps work. Meanwhile I am extremely poor at following instructions without understanding how they work - scarily so at times.
In general, becoming indignant is a good strategy for dealing with people that are manipulating you deliberately. Not many people are willing to follow that strategy with their immediate family, however.
Personally boundaries can be discovered, expressed and executed without indignation. Learning how not to get caught up in patterns that personally detrimental while minimising unhealthy forms of conflict is an invaluable skill.
Providing technical support is, after all, an optional service. It isn't an obligation that you have to the world simply because you have the capability. People may be able to influence you to provide that support either by providing incentive or by making the experience of giving the favour rewarding in itself. Helping out of a frustrating sense of obligation is a less healthy and to be avoided if possible.
Sources might be useful because many on LW will not be versed in gender socialization norms. These things make sense to me, but I can't say I've seen them explicitly stated before (at least in a way that stuck with me).
Not the complete story, of course, but here's an interesting recent Slate article suggesting that female professors seems to have a positive effect at the university level:
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This isn't surprising, boys in elementary school do better with male teachers, which may be part of the reason why we are seeing such worrying figures about their performance in recent years.
A bit later than intended, but here are some useful sources related to my post. I'd recommend the stereotype threat wikipedia article and the Handbook of Socialization as the best overviews for those less familiar to the topic.
Basic overview of childhood gendered socialization: http://gozips.uakron.edu/~susan8/parinf.htm
Handbook of Socialization: Theory and Research, edited by Joan E. Grusec and Paul D. Hastings (2007).
Excerpt here: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/CBD/downloads/week9_LeaperCh22.pdf
(Particularly relevant is the section on peer-sensitivity and the tendency to downplay achievements or ability in an area considered to "belong" to the other gender.)
Claire Etaugh, Marsha B. Liss, Home, school, and playroom: Training grounds for adult gender roles, Sex Roles, Volume 26, Issue 3 – 4, Feb 1992, Pages 129 – 147
I'll go through my link archives tonight, then. Still getting a feel for what's considered common knowledge here and what isn't.
This gibes with what I've heard about the difficulties of being a female professor in a traditional male-dominated environment of academia.
There's just-so stories all through the hard sciences. In Fran Allen's day, programming at IBM was considered work for women, owing to their evolved nurturing and household management abilities, etc., etc. Ms Allen attributes the masculinisation of programming to people from male-dominated engineering faculties moving in on the field in the late '60s. (Allen's opinions sourced from the interview with her in Coders At Work.)
That's an extremely interesting reminder of how culture-dependent these occupational gender patterns are.
IIRC, programmers are about 50-50 in a number of post-Soviet states. Not sure if this is due to commie educational policies, regional culture, or something else.
Among European countries the greatest proportion of female physicists, by a significant amount, are in France and Poland, so the mere existence of national heroes seems to make a difference as well.
However, these were the days before compilers. Programming back then was a very different affair from nowadays, involving a lot of office work, as well as other kinds of semi-skilled work that were back then (and would likely still be to some extent) perceived as typical women's work. I'd be wary of any generalizations to today's situation in computing without studying the issue in much more detail.
Here is a debate between Pinker and Spelke on the causes of gender imbalance in the hard sciences. There's a video if you scroll down.
People interested in this may also want to look at Sian Beilock's study about how female children develop math anxiety (pdf).
So... are there differences? Or aren't there?
I agree with you that their explanation is a little too "I found something that might account for at least 5% of the real solution, and that's good enough. We're done here!"
It's possible (although not the most natural reading) to interpret
as something along the lines of "boys do not consistently top the class in any subject; there is no subject in which it is at all unusual for a girl to be at the top of her class".
That is a plausible interpretation.
My priors were that, for similar levels of maturity girls collectively do better on classwork and boys collectively do better on tests, that girls mature faster at young ages, and that the bulk of grades come from classwork in younger grades. So I would expect girls collectively to be routinely outperforming boys collectively at the 5th grade level. The statement that there are no differences between girls and boys thus struck me out of left field- the only explanation I could come up with was sex sensitivity (if girls are doing worse, there are differences, if boys are doing worse, there are no differences).
Thinking about it again, I came up with another interpretation: the "these" in front of "boys and girls" is referring to the bright ones. So bright girls routinely outperform average boys, just like bright boys outperform average boys. But that seems like a sloppy way to compare distribution tails.
The key word is these. As in, "These bright boys and bright girls both had roughly the same ability and history of success, having all performed in the top of their class in every subject."
I stumbled across that interpretation here. It seems reasonable but sloppy.