This may be a matter of aptitude at the professional level, but only because boys are often pushed toward these fields when girls are not.
For psychologists studying education, that early gap is crucial.
If you’re excited about a subject, you’ll want to do it more. If you feel inadequate, you’ll shy away.
The problem is that we humans have a poor understanding of our abilities. We don’t know our strengths and weaknesses. And it’s this issue that can fill kids with self-doubt and turn otherwise bright students into ones who think they’re not.
Here are the two biggest cognitive biases that limit student achievement:
If you take a random group of boys and girls and give them the same maths problems, chances are they will get similar test scores. But if you follow up with each student and ask them how they think they did, you’ll quickly realise that, while the girls give a fairly accurate account, the boys will think they did much better than their scores show. Importantly, they will be more likely to tell you they’re interested in pursuing maths as a career.
That scenario was the premise of a recent study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Washington. They were studying positivity bias, an error in judgment where a person overestimates their abilities. (You can test yours here.)
According to Heather Lench, a psychologist at Texas A&M, the positivity bias boys hold about maths could be giving them a leg up later in life.
“Maths is a difficult subject for most people,” Lench said recently, “and we speculate that positivity biases might help bolster people as they are initially struggling to master maths concepts.”
Girls may be on equal ground with boys in maths, but if the boys think they’re doing better, they will enjoy the act of persistence more.
Remedying that difference, Lench says, requires giving girls constructive feedback on their performance. That way, they will have more positive feelings the next time they confront a problem.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger discovered a quirk in how we compare our abilities to others.
They found that unskilled people will tend to grossly overestimate their abilities specifically because they are unskilled. Meanwhile, highly skilled people will tend to underestimate their abilities because they don’t realise just how high above average they are.
The resulting effect, which the researchers handily named after themselves, could help explain why gaps in achievement persist.
A mountain of research shows girls actually outperform boys in most subjects, including maths and science. But it seems to be the case that girls discount their actual skill while boys can’t recognise their deficiencies. According to Dunning and Kruger, this can lead the competent group — in this case, girls — to feel average even when they out-perform boys. Boys, meanwhile, might feel superior when they’re really behind.
Or, as Dunning and Kruger put it in their original report, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”
In both cases, people’s impression of what’s true gets clouded by their own abilities.
But as with the positivity bias, most errors in judgment fade away once people receive feedback about where they truly stand.
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