Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This post was originally published at Geek Feminism.

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

As a female geek who is interested in science and tech discussion on the Internet (Slashdot, Digg, Hacker News, Reddit, etc.), I constantly see science and tech geeks declare over and over again that women’s brains are hard-wired against processing math, tech, and the mental rotation of 3D objects. When I was younger and already pursuing a geeky degree that involved math and tech, I took an online quiz measuring my ability to mentally rotate 3D objects to “check” if I had the “hardware requirements” to belong in my program. (I’m sure I’m not the only science-interested female student who has done something similar!) Of course, looking back, this is an absurd and unfortunate social consequence of evolutionary psychology intersecting with sexism. My math and computer course grades more directly measured my math and computer success, while my 3D mental rotation quiz score was far from the original point, which was to do well in my math and computer courses.

ReducingStereotypeThreat.org, a web site by two psychology professors from Columbia University and CUNY, lists methods to reduce stereotype threat aimed at other psychology researchers who want to reduce stereotype threat in their participants, but the web page is still useful to everyone else and research-backed.

My favourite is the last section, “Emphasizing an incremental view of intelligence”. Basically, some people generally believe that intelligence is “fixed”, while others generally believe that intelligence can be developed over time. People who believed in “fixed” intelligence tend to avoid challenging tasks and are more affected by stereotype threat. Conversely, people who believe that intelligence is malleable are more likely to focus on “improving rather than proving ability to themselves or others” and are more likely to “increase effort to further learning and to overcome obstacles”.

The section also describes a psychology experiment from 2007 involving female students and math learning:

In this study, students were randomly assigned to one of two learning environments in which they watched an educational video that taught new math concepts from either an entity ["fixed" intelligence] or an incremental ["malleable" intelligence] perspective. They then solved math problems under either stereotype threat or non-threat conditions. Results showed that when females learned the new math concepts with an entity perspective, they performed less well on the math test in the stereotype threat condition than in the non-threat condition. However, when they learned the new math concepts portrayed from an incremental perspective, there were no differences between the stereotype threat and the non-threat conditions on the math test.

Moreover, encouraging an entity theory even appears to harm performance. For instance, attributing gender differences in mathematics to genetics reduced performance of women on a math test compared with conditions in which differences were explained in terms of experience or effort. In other words, the concern with confirming abilities believed to be fixed or biologically-determined can interfere with one’s capability to perform well.

These studies suggest that stereotype threat can be reduced or even eliminated if an incremental view of ability is emphasized. Doing so involves emphasizing the importance of effort and motivation in performance and de-emphasizing inherent “talent” or “genius.” Individuals who are encouraged to think in incremental terms will tend to react more effectively to challenge and are less likely to fear confirming negative stereotypes of their group.


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13 Responses to “Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter”

  1. Hardlearn Says:

    I’ve seen the effects of this quite a bit with women and blacks. That’s gotta be one of the most dangerous ideas to have!
    It always seemed that the external enforcement of the idea of a ‘fixed intelligence’ would come from people who believe themselves to be either on the high end or the low end of intelligence…never in the middle.

    Not too fond of the solutions though.
    More curious as to why people are so reactive to environment that another persons inconsideration in their language can be such a noticeable influence on their outlook on life/learning.
    Is it possible to learn efficiently regardless of the teacher’s shortcomings while not having any belief in a fixed/non-fixed intelligence? If it is, than all this change in language would be trivial.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    Why are you not fond of the solutions? (I am honestly curious.)

    In general, Believing You Can Get Smarter Makes You Smarter.

    More curious as to why people are so reactive to environment that another persons inconsideration in their language can be such a noticeable influence on their outlook on life/learning.

    Hmm, I find it odd that you perceive it as “inconsideration in their language”, if you are referring to the declarations that black people and women are innately less intelligent than white people and men. If you mean just the fixed vs. malleable language, then it’s probably because white men (as a whole) would assume themselves to be in the fixed-smart category before knowing themselves, while black people and women generally assume themselves to be in the fixed-stupid category before knowing themselves, if fixed intelligence is emphasized, since that is the accepted status quo of how things supposedly are. The ReduceStereotypeThreat site explains behavioural consequences of stereotype threat.

  3. Hardlearn Says:

    The solutions seem like ‘illusory’ band-aids on a ‘larger’ issue.
    Having to be taught (trained) to the idea that intelligence isn’t fixed in order to function ‘efficiently’ is what rings wrongly to me. I can’t back that up with any research, but hopefully my explanation makes some sense:

    The emphasis on enforcing an idea that intelligence is(or isn’t) malleable with an absence of any questioning as to the necessity of the idea and then making that the basis of one’s outlook seems(maybe reaching) to imply that one must have an outlook as one of these ideas.

    The articles go on into how these outlooks/ideas influence our environment. Which is basically saying that our outlooks/ideas are our environment which we are at the mercy of. So the solution is to alter the environment. Fixed intelligence being part of a bad environment and malleable intelligence being part of a good environment.

    Not a question as to what this psychological environment is and if it’s even necessary at all.They could just be encouraging delusion which they find more profitable to society. If there exist the possibility to be free of this psychological environment( I believe it is. Also, I think the neuroscientist allude to this in their study of savants), that renders their aproach null and void. Completely.

    I’m not quite sure what they mean by intelligence either. I couldn’t find it explicitly defined on apa. They just seem to be talking only about making people smarter and using the idea of intelligence as a carrot rather than a stick.
    Which again, I’m not fond of. Why not do away with people’s acceptance of the idea of intelligence instead? It only seems to be used when comparing oneself to another which seems to go hand-in-hand with hurt. Really…why be at the mercy of those kinds of ideas at all? One could accept that intelligence is malleable go and make the attempt to learn some subject, find it more difficult than imagined then start to doubt the idea and then fall further into some slump. They may not fall into a slump, but that seems to be implied in that whole game. I just don’t get the acceptance of playing it in the first place.

  4. Hardlearn Says:

    With regard to the inconsiderate language part: I don’t mean explicit statements, but the subtle ways in which those statements are offhandedly implied.

  5. Restructure! Says:

    First of all, the idea of “intelligence” being malleable is not a delusion or illusory. The fact that thinking you can get smarter actually makes you smarter entails that you can actually get smarter. On top of that, “intelligence” being malleable is the correct version of how our minds actually work (when researchers tell children that “the brain actually forms new connections every time you learn something new, and that over time, this makes you smarter”, they aren’t lying to the children).

    … Hmm, now I think I understand what you are saying. You are opposed to the idea of intelligence as a “ranking” system. That’s perfectly fine, since the idea of intelligence has been used that way in the past to support racism and classism (Stephen Jay Gould criticizes this in The Mismeasure of Man). However, you can also think of “intelligence” as how well you do something compared to how you did it in the past.

    Then again, you are right that there is still an aura of elitism, since the idea of “intelligence” in our society is associated with academic achievement, and academic achievement is obviously affected by things like poverty and stereotypes, so maintaining the idea that “intelligence” is malleable may still support the idea that people who don’t do well in school didn’t work as hard as the high-achieving students…

  6. Restructure! Says:

    With regard to the inconsiderate language part: I don’t mean explicit statements, but the subtle ways in which those statements are offhandedly implied.

    I don’t know your race and gender, but I’m going to assume that you are a white male… Declaring that intelligence is “fixed” is not really subtle, when black people and women are bombarded with stereotypes of being innately less intelligent from childhood. Every time I encounter a math or computer problem and get stuck, one thing that commonly flits through my mind is that I don’t get it because I’m female, and I won’t ever get it for the same reason. I doubt that boys and men think like that whenever they encounter a challenging math problem. Maybe they think like when they become a father for the first time and don’t know what they are doing.

  7. Hardlearn Says:

    Yeah, I agree about those statements not being subtle. They’re certainly obvious when you’re constantly on the receiving end of its consequences. I wasn’t referring to those explicit statements, though, but to the way they are sorta implied. If someone believes intelligence to be fixed, they need not state it as such as the belief manifest itself in their actions…who they help/teach, how they help/teach, their idea of help/teaching etc. At some of the schools I went to I’ve seen plenty of guys who didn’t even allow themselves to be put in positions where they would encounter challenging problems because of some notion of inferiority. Most were black males, a couple of white ones too. I knew of at least 1 female with the same issues. I at some point(dunno if I still do) suffered from this too. All had in common some idea of intelligence being fixed. We could probably extend this to beauty if we wanted.
    FYI, I’m black/yellow male.

    About intelligence being malleable being fact or not and use as a solution/self affirming idea: I call it illusory in the sense that it’s not been demonstrated that one must have the idea that it is/isn’t malleable in order to function efficiently. It seems like a solution to a false problem.
    If you never had any knowledge of this ‘intelligence’, would any of this ever have become a problem?

    I’m not quite sure about this reliance on ‘fact’ as a basis for our psychological well-being. Isn’t this the very same thing that put us in the position of being victimized by the idea of intelligence being fixed in the first place? It seems the only difference is that we find one idea more convenient and more smart people have co-signed it.
    So now we push this idea on to the future generation continuing what you just said in your last paragraph.

    I don’t understand what you mean here:
    However, you can also think of “intelligence” as how well you do something compared to how you did it in the past.

    experience?

  8. Hardlearn Says:

    ^^ first paragraph clarification.
    the way the belief manifest itself is obvious. Most of us see it. I’m not using the word obvious and subtle with regard to whether we notice it easily or not, but to the explicit statements that those not in the know can’t deny it flashing signal that the rest of us may have caught onto long ago.

  9. Restructure! Says:

    At some of the schools I went to I’ve seen plenty of guys who didn’t even allow themselves to be put in positions where they would encounter challenging problems because of some notion of inferiority. Most were black males, a couple of white ones too. I knew of at least 1 female with the same issues. I at some point(dunno if I still do) suffered from this too. All had in common some idea of intelligence being fixed.

    I totally was like this during my childhood, especially since my parent kept telling me I was “mentally retarded” constantly. I didn’t want to be mentally retarded, so I purposely didn’t try when I took tests, because if I tried and still did poorly, it might mean that I’m mentally retarded. (I didn’t get beat for bad report cards, because my parents don’t really value education more than white people.)

    Anyway, I was seriously messed up as a child and in need of intervention, but the intervention came from a same-age friend, since my family and my public school didn’t help any. (Thank goodness my school didn’t have tracking then, because I would be totally screwed right now.) People who don’t know my past and just know me as an adult think I’m some kind of smart Asian who always did well in school, but they don’t know what I’ve been through.

    If you never had any knowledge of this ‘intelligence’, would any of this ever have become a problem?

    But to be culturally literate in our society means having knowledge of the idea of “intelligence”. Parents shielding children from the idea of intelligence would work as well as parents trying to prevent racism by not mentioning race…

    It seems the only difference is that we find one idea more convenient and more smart people have co-signed it.

    For me personally, I understand the experimental methods and how the experiment works, so I’m not just taking “smart” people’s word on faith. I’m lucky to have some formal education in psychology, which gives me the ability to trust or criticize studies. I guess scientific literacy is a privilege, but I hope that everyone can become scientifically literate enough to see science study conclusions as more than just what “smart” people have co-signed. (Really, they should teach us this in high school, not just to people who take science courses in university.)

    I don’t understand what you mean here:
    However, you can also think of “intelligence” as how well you do something compared to how you did it in the past.

    experience?

    Well, I sort of think of intelligence (or rather particular mental skills) as “like a muscle”, which is like Dweck’s “the brain is like a muscle” that she teaches children in the group that learns that intelligence is malleable.

  10. Hardlearn Says:

    Thankfully I didn’t have a situation anything like yours. My step-brother did with my step-mom..he definitely had(more appropriately, has) some issues.
    I didn’t intend to come off as dismissive of scientific literature with the smart comments…At least not as much as I did!

    So, would you say that all this studying has made you better?
    I’m asking because it seem that people who try to ‘right’ their wiring never really get to that point. Instead, what happens is they just have some statistic,mantra, or quote, etc they repeat when the unwanted behavior rears its head. As if some repetition of it will eventually, somehow, fix them.

    With regard to being culturally literate making the learning of intelligence unavoidable. Definitely can’t deny that. It would still be nice to find out whether it’s possible to have that idea in our head- not be sheltered from it- and still function smoothly as if it did not mean a thing outside of academic literature. To be completely untouched psychologically by our environment.. Kinda tiring being a pinball!
    Cause as it goes now, it’s like there will be no such thing as a sane person until the scientist have exhausted all avenues of research regarding the brain! I’d hope we needn’t wait that long!
    I’ll have to bother you some more about that point another time.

  11. Restructure! Says:

    So, would you say that all this studying has made you better?

    Studying harder doesn’t necessarily mean you do better. You also need to study more efficiently and learn time management. However, formal education gives you educational privilege, and you really are piggybacking on some of humanity’s collective knowledge. It’s better for me, but it doesn’t make me better than other people.

    I’m asking because it seem that people who try to ‘right’ their wiring never really get to that point. Instead, what happens is they just have some statistic,mantra, or quote, etc they repeat when the unwanted behavior rears its head. As if some repetition of it will eventually, somehow, fix them.

    You are still assuming that anyone who believes they are hard-wired with mental limitations really are hard-wired with mental limitations, and that the idea of malleable intelligence is just some kind of feel-good mantra that is inaccurate.

  12. Hardlearn Says:

    ~You are still assuming that anyone who believes they are hard-wired with mental limitations really are hard-wired with mental limitations, and that the idea of malleable intelligence is just some kind of feel-good mantra that is inaccurate.~

    Nope. I’m saying that some people who are trying to change, only seem to change in the sense that they tell themselves some different words which they think is changing them because… they tell themselves something different than what they told themselves before coming upon this new knowledge. The knowledge/words change, but the state of mind doesn’t seem to; Instead of the hole healing, it’s filled with some other knowledge.
    Doesn’t mean that intelligence being malleable is just a feel-good mantra, though that may be what it’s reduced to.

    If intelligence being malleable is fact, than it is so independent of anyone’s thinking it so. I’m saying the thinking-it-so is different than the fact and may be irrelevant to the fact as well as a hinder to the fact.

    Repetition of any activity may have nothing to do with the fact of intelligence, but may only be the means by which we confuse ourselves of change…The ‘fact’ of change being already pre-constructed in our minds therefore not being a real fundamental change.

    I didn’t mean better as compared to other people, but better as in coming out of sickness. That the psychological issues you may have had as a kid becoming completely healed as you learned about them.

  13. Restructure! Says:

    If intelligence being malleable is fact, than it is so independent of anyone’s thinking it so. I’m saying the thinking-it-so is different than the fact and may be irrelevant to the fact as well as a hinder to the fact.

    Nope, thinking that intelligence is malleable works because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same thing applies to thinking that intelligence is fixed.

    Believing that intelligence is malleable is not just something that people who are told they are stupid should do. Kids who are told that they are “smart” and believe in fixed intelligence also end up with fixed intelligence, i.e., they have difficulty learning new things.

    I didn’t mean better as compared to other people, but better as in coming out of sickness. That the psychological issues you may have had as a kid becoming completely healed as you learned about them.

    Well, my parent stopped calling me “mentally retarded” after I got my degree. Getting some financial independence to remove myself from the constantly emotionally abusive environment helped as well.

    Seriously, though, I think learning about how the mind works by taking some psychology helped as well, although now that I think about it, moving out actually made a much larger difference by giving me peace of mind and realizing that I wasn’t the one with the mental problem.


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