Meeting Your Expectations

By JoAnne Hewett | October 24, 2006 12:48 am

Everybody has their expectations. About basically everything in life. Will the Cardinals win the World Series? Will my date be nice? Can I solve this problem? What can I achieve in life? These are the types of things we all have expectations about.

A Canadian research group recently reported the results of their study on women’s expectations for solving math problems. You can find the article in Science (sorry, you need a subscription), and a report in the NYT. 220 women were divided into 4 groups and given math and reading comprehension tests between 2003 and 2006. The women were given a GRE (Graduate Records Exam)-like math test, then asked to read an essay, and then given a second math exam. Four different essays were handed out. These essays argued that gender differences in math performances were due to (i) genetic (G), or (ii) experiential (E) differences between the sexes, or (iii) employed standard sexual sterotypes without mentioning mathematical abilities (S), or (iv) argued that there are no gender related math-differences (ND).

The results showed that the women receiving the (S) and (G) essays answered 5-10 out of 25 math questions correctly, while the (E) and (ND) essay groups answered 15-20 of the questions correctly. That’s a factor of 2 difference! In other words, the women that were told they would perform poorly because they were women, did.

The results do not seem surprising to me, but I am glad someone has quantified this. I would like to see another study with a larger statistical sample, and I would like to see the results of the first and second math tests to ensure the four populations were statisitcally even in their inate mathematical abilites.

The study was performed by Steven J. Heine, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, and his PhD student Ilan Dar-Nimrod.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Women in Science
  • Haelfix

    Yes this effect has been known for some time.. Its the negative/positive reinforcement bias, and its usually corrected for when looking for genetic differences or other factors. It applies to men or any stereotyped group as well.

    The NAS study takes this into account for instance.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    I would love to see the exact same set of tests given out to a sample of men and see if the opposite effect unfolds

  • Mike

    There are many other biases that affect a womans chances of acheiving academic positions. Here is a(particularly striking) study mentioned by Elizabeth Spekle in a debate with Steven Pinker on Gender in Science(Steinpreis et al 1999).

    “I will give you one last version of a gender-labeling study. This one hits particularly close to home. The subjects in the study were people like Steve and me: professors of psychology, who were sent some vitas to evaluate as applicants for a tenure track position. Two different vitas were used in the study. One was a vita of a walk-on-water candidate, best candidate you’ve ever seen, you would die to have this person on your faculty. The other vita was a middling, average vita among successful candidates. For half the professors, the name on the vita was male, for the other half the name was female. People were asked a series of questions: What do you think about this candidate’s research productivity? What do you think about his or her teaching experience? And finally, Would you hire this candidate at your university?

    For the walk-on-water candidate, there was no effect of gender labeling on these judgments. I think this finding supports Steve’s view that we’re dealing with little overt discrimination at universities. It’s not as if professors see a female name on a vita and think, I don’t want her. When the vita’s great, everybody says great, let’s hire.

    What about the average successful vita, though: that is to say, the kind of vita that professors most often must evaluate? In that case, there were differences. The male was rated as having higher research productivity. These psychologists, Steve’s and my colleagues, looked at the same number of publications and thought, “good productivity” when the name was male, and “less good productivity” when the name was female. Same thing for teaching experience. The very same list of courses was seen as good teaching experience when the name was male, and less good teaching experience when the name was female. In answer to the question would they hire the candidate, 70% said yes for the male, 45% for the female. If the decision were made by majority rule, the male would get hired and the female would not.

    A couple other interesting things came out of this study. The effects were every bit as strong among the female respondents as among the male respondents. Men are not the culprits here. There were effects at the tenure level as well. At the tenure level, professors evaluated a very strong candidate, and almost everyone said this looked like a good case for tenure. But people were invited to express their reservations, and they came up with some very reasonable doubts. For example, “This person looks very strong, but before I agree to give her tenure I would need to know, was this her own work or the work of her adviser?” Now that’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But what ought to give us pause is that those kinds of reservations were expressed four times more often when the name was female than when the name was male.”

    Video of the full debate is available at Edge.org here : http://tinyurl.com/bdony

  • http://www.brannenworks.com/dmaa.pdf Carl Brannen

    Maybe it means that women don’t do too well on math tests when they’re pissed off.

    Meanwhile, I’ve discovered a way to travel in time: write a textbook on the density matrix formalism. The problem is that it only works at moving you into the future. (And makes your eyes hurt.)

  • http://www.kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Thanks. BTW, I don’t even know what sport the Cardinals play, but I certainly know what it’s like to be a woman born in the 1960s who has spent a lot of time trying to do physics. I’m still trying, so I guess I’ve made a profession of that at least. When I left high school (a girls’ school) I was sure I would struggle at physics at Uni, because that’s what I had always been told. After the first exam results, I was so terrified by reality that I promptly stopped studying in my free time lest I actually do too well. Nevertheless, my undergrad years were enjoyable, and I didn’t take much notice of prevailing prejudices. It was an optimistic time. I think things are worse nowadays. People have learnt to keep their opinions more to themselves. My hope is that the sheer numbers of young women studying physics now will kill off the insane reality in a generation’s time. Pity some of us will be dead by then.

  • fh

    This is interessting, one of my biggest recommendations to students before their maths tests always is: Don’t let the maths smell your fear.

    At least for some it works.

  • http://www.kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Hi fh

    I was never afraid of the maths itself. It’s more about having one’s attention drawn away from the maths.

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  • anon

    Stereotype threat is a well known effect, and reminding someone of any stereotype about them doing badly works just as well to depress their scores. Including white men (just remind them that people from singapore are better at math than they are, and they’ll do poorly).

    Likewise, nobody who has looked at the data (including steve pinker) is really arguing that there is no gender-discrimination going on. Steve pinker is only trying to say that not only is there discrimination going on; there is also data that supports other reasons for fewer women happening to be in science, including motivational and or ‘greater standard deviation’ arguments. It’s not a dichotomy — there can, and likely are, at least a few different reasons for the (great) disparity between men and women at the upper levels of the sciences. Discrimination at the university level is undoubtly the largest, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other factors.

    And if you believe things like intrinsic motivation might be a factor, then if our ultimate goal is really to have as many men and women both trying to go into science and succeeding in science, that might take way more than eliminating discrimination at the level of high school, college and professorships. It might mean changing the way young children play or carefully controlling very young people’s experience with science and scientists.

    In the end its mostly a question of where men and women diverge — not necessarily in numbers, but also in things like attitude toward science. The idea that some of the variance could be innate is not totally out there, even though liberals like to attack steve pinker for even having the thought. You could certainly imagine that correcting discrimination at the univerity and high school levels would still leave some differences between men and women, and its not unthinkable that even correcting the problems in early education wouldn’t fix them. It’s all a question of how far you think it is necessary to go to make things as equal as they ought to be — if a 5 year old who decides to be a scientist has equal opportunity regardless of their gender, and equal chance of success, does it matter if fewer female 5 year olds decide they want to become scientists?. Thats a personal question, I think, of when we’ve done as much as is necessary.

  • Xenophage

    Is there a differential response when the same test protocol is administered to males? The study as reported studied nothing. It was a verdict delivered before the trial.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Xenophage — as I understand it, the study was about women. As such, your snarky “verdict” remark doesn’t apply.

    Also, if you want to think about relevance to society, there simply are not message out there saying that men shouldn’t be able to do science… but there are messages like that out there about women and science. Even if a study showed that men would respond poorly when reading reports about how dumb they are (and I suspect they would!), it doesn’t shed so much light on reality because reality isn’t set up that way.

    (There is, I think, I message that “math is hard” that everybody gets– which makes people in general approach math with a pre-existing bias that “I can’t do this.” This is either an extension of, or in addition to, the differential message women get about women’s abilities.)

    -Rob

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    I’m glad you are not surprised,
    in society we have children who are encouraged
    and taught to pass exams

    then we have children who are not encouraged
    and not taught how to pass exams.

    I won’t add any more variables but the ‘same’ proof is equally applicable to both sexes.

    PS – Did nobody think to include a woman who thinks she is not a woman, err… if (supposing) such a thing exists

    Incidentally when (which month, week, day, hour) does a foetal ‘mind’ or rather brain become male or female???

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. The big iceberg hiding under the water is the myth that math and physics are so difficult that only gifted students in university can understand it. It’s high time to start to teach science in primary school!

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. The big iceberg hiding under the water is the myth that math and physics are so difficult that only gifted students in university can understand it. It’s high time to start to teach science in primary school!

    In principle, we do….

    Unfortunatley, too often science is taught as definitions, I think.

    Regarding math, I don’t know why but for some reason the “math is hard” meme seems to take over bigtime somewhere aroudn 6th or 7th grade. I see so many students in my intro non-majors class who tell me that “I’m not a math person,” or “I can’t do math,” that it’s depresisng. Because, with very few exceptions, they can. Yeah, they make some classic mistakes, but they know how to do algebra, they even generally know trig. The big conceptual gaps are in connecting math with reality — what “word problems” in math classes are supposed to get across, but don’t seem to do. But the biggest problem is that the students come in convinced that they don’t know how to do math, and so freeze up when they see any scary math.

    -Rob

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Rob, I agree. I think that the flaw in the maths and physics education system is that we do it sequentially from elementary stuff like arithmetic to algebra to more complex stuff. Imagine teaching language that way. Then you would only do spelling for a few years. Then you would do grammar for a few years and only years later would you read your first book.

  • http://geekcounterpoint.net Lorne Ipsum

    The big iceberg hiding under the water is the myth that math and physics are so difficult that only gifted students in university can understand it. It’s high time to start to teach science in primary school!

    Primary school — pfeh!

    I’ve got a 4 year old daughter, and I’ve been teaching her math, physics, and astronomy since she could hold her head up by herself. I’m being sneaky, though — she thinks we’re just playing

    BTW, when the Canadian study first came out, did anybody else immediately think of ‘Teen Talk Barbie?’

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    I would love to see the exact same set of tests given out to a sample of men and see if the opposite effect unfolds

    Or the same effect.

    Basically, if you want to draw conclusions from this study, you need to further test a group of men. It’s clear that reading a paticular essay had an effect on the test scores, but you can’t yet draw conclusions from this. For example, the candidates could have be irked by reading an essay that put down people, or anxious after reading something that mentioned mathematics as being difficult. That said, there were substantially different essays used which would elminiate uncertainty in this direction.

    However, in order for the final conclusion to be accurate, you need a final control, i.e. a group of males. Frankly I don’t see how this was missed. It’s all in Feynman’s cargo cult physics speech. That said, I think the conclusion is most likely correct, but before you say that scientifically, you need that final control.

    Incidently, the presentation of these results is excellent, because someone has made the effort to put the standard deviation in their graphs. Bravo.

  • http://rmccahon.wordpress.com Rico

    After reading your entry and thinking about how it did seem to be common sense (and good therefore now to have data backing that up) I was struck by how practical also it could be. I’m a tutor and might be in a position soon to influence how tutoring is done around me. What your blog entry made me think about was how to provide a positive expectation environment without becoming a source for obnoxiously excessive self-confidence.

    So, thank you for posting this that I might randomly find it and be inspired to some new thoughts.

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  • Dylab

    I thought you guys would find this interesting. Chris, a cognitive scientist, at Mixing Memory has a more elaborate post on the subject in general here. http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/ He goes beyond the study mentioned here.

  • admin1

    I think what is streotyped here is math. It is an academic scholastic notion that mathematics, or calculus, the Latin of our day, is a measure of intelligence.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    I think what is stereotyped here is math. It is an academic scholastic notion that mathematics, or calculus, the Latin of our day, is a measure of intelligence.

    I don’t think many experts believe this to be the case. The study just shows that the educational standards are very low in the US.

    If you randomly pick 100 average 12 year olds you can make then experts in calculus by the age of 17 provided they study well. You don’t need more than a few years to master differentiation, integration, complex analyses, contour integration, linear algebra, topolgy, functional analyses differential geometry, quantum field theory, general relativity, etc. etc.

    The problem is that most children are not motivated enough to study hard enough. But you can perform the following experiment. You let average 12 year olds participate in an experimental education program. When they are 17 they take an exam on subjects such as General Relativity, Lagrangian dynamics, quantum field theory etc.

    If they pass those exams they will be awarded $1000,000. I think that more than 95% of these average students will pass their exams. Most of these student will look like extremely gifted children with high IQs.

  • admin1

    Count Iblis writes

    If they pass those exams they will be awarded $1000,000. I think that more than 95% of these average students will pass their exams. Most of these student will look like extremely gifted children with high IQs.

    I totally agree with this. But the point I was trying to make was that “differentiation, integration, complex analyses, contour integration, linear algebra, topolgy, functional analyses differential geometry, quantum field theory, general relativity…” and so on are the Latin of our day. These things have been created by scholastic Doctors to advance their own careers. This means that the way before Calculus Latin was considered the true knowledge by the Scholastic Doctors, today, calculus, took its place. Calculus is just a dead language, the programming language of the 17th century. Teaching calculus today is like teaching Cobol as the hottest computer language. There is no reason to define intelligence as the capacity to cram calculus.

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