What percent of your peers are you smarter than?
This seemingly innocuous question, paired with the idea of “academic self-concept,” was explored in a recent study by three researchers from Arizona State University. These results, along with the personal experiences of Gwen Pearson, the outreach coordinator in the entomology department at Purdue, served as the basis of an article by NBC.
The study shows that “the average man with a 3.3 GPA perceives that he is smarter than 66 percent of the class,” whereas a woman in the same demographic “perceives that she is smarter than 54 percent” of classmates.
Even more drastic is the difference between students’ perceptions of their classmates. The average male student “has a 61 percent chance that we will perceive that he is smarter than his group-mate,” with the average female student having “a 33 percent chance.”
That difference in perception could be explained by society’s tendency to encourage men to be assertive and confident leaders, societal expectations of female perfection or possibly women’s fear of being perceived as unknowledgeable.
Whatever the cause, the study makes it clear that “women are more likely to underestimate their own understanding” than men. This needs to be corrected, though that doesn’t mean everyone should belittle men in an attempt to make them fit the statistical truth.
While there is nothing wrong with being confident in one’s intelligence, problems arise when half the student population sees themselves as smarter than only a third of their peers. This phenomenon could prove especially unfortunate at a team-focused university like Purdue, where group projects are emphasized, such as in the semester-long teams in first-year engineering. Such a concentration on group work leaves no room for unfairly doubting oneself, like many female students do.
There should be steps taken so female students don’t find themselves discouraged from fields of study because of mistakes they make along the way.
These steps will likely be a societal shift that encourages students to make mistakes openly, and acknowledge when they don’t know everything about a subject. Open attitudes would discourage the treatment many women in the hard-science fields face when they encounter students, usually male, who think highly of themselves.
Pearson recounted in the NBC article some harsh experiences of her beginning years as a woman in science.
“I can’t even tell you how many of my early successes were attributed to my being the only girl, and ‘they had to’ give the award to a woman,” Pearson said. “I had someone take my photo off the departmental board and write ‘Boy, are you ugly’ on the back.”
Women shouldn’t be so worried to be wrong, but it’s understandable. It’s all too easy for hesitant students to close themselves off to learning more if rebuffed, pushing those students to be even less assertive and less likely to learn in the future.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to take on leadership positions, and are less afraid to speak up and possibly make errors along the way.
These trends most likely account for much of the difference, and make sense if one considers the different ways society treats these two genders.
Having an explanation for the trend doesn’t make it less concerning. Women shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and participate in class, even if they aren’t sure of themselves. Similarly, male students shouldn’t be intentionally reserved or afraid of being loud, but rather make sure not to overstate their understanding of a concept, to make it clear that not knowing everything is still OK.
In a university where teamwork is highly valued, it’s more important than ever to remember that comparing oneself with one’s peers can result in feelings of self-loathing or over-inflated arrogance.