Why Girls Are Uniquely Vulnerable to College Pressures

06/08/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016
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What's the best way to get someone to complete a task? You give them a reward, an incentive or some other external "carrot" to help them along, right?


This principle has guided businesses, education and even parenting for who-knows-how-long. But, as Daniel Pink shows in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, rewarding someone for a task slows them down, kills creativity and -- here's the kicker -- often makes them lose interest altogether in the task itself.

Here's just one study as an example: Researchers divided a group of preschool kids into three groups. The first was an "expected award" group: the children were told they'd get a blue ribbon certificate if they drew with markers and paper. The second group was the "unexpected award" group: the kids were asked to draw and, when the session ended, researchers could give them blue ribbons if they felt like it. The third group was the "no award group: these kids were asked if they wanted to draw, but a reward was neither promised nor handed out at the end.

Two weeks later, the teachers put out paper and markers during free play. The children in the "unexpected award" and "no award" groups drew just as much, and as enthusiastically, as they had before. The kids who were promised that blue ribbon? They showed much less interest and spent less time drawing.

It turns out that the most compelling source of motivation -- the desire to pursue a task to its completion -- is intrinsic.

As Pink writes, we're most likely to want to do something when "the joy of the task [is] its own reward." When the desire comes from within, we're unstoppable. A raft of studies find that intrinisically motivated individuals are more resilient, less anxious and depressed, and have lower levels of burnout. They get better grades and have higher levels of psychological well-being, to name just a few benefits.

As I study the world of older adolescent girls, I find the terms of their world -- and specifically, success in their world -- long on extrinsic motivation, and short on the drive that comes from within.

When you're motivated by external rewards, it's often because you're trying to accomplish goals you didn't create yourself. Consider the College Application Industrial Complex, the subculture where students feel pressured to craft themselves into the perfect specimens for college admission. That entire world is built on the worst kind of extrinsic motivator, what Pink calls an "if-then contingency:" if you work hard enough to do well academically, score high on standardized tests, and fill your resume with world-saving extracurriculars, then you'll get into a good college -- and, presumably, access to a better life.

Why are so many girls (and boys) losing their authenticity, love of learning and sense of self in the process? Why are so many taking medication to get out of bed or finish a paper, and why are they burning out in college and beyond? Because the CAIC is gutting them of their intrinsic motivation. These students are driven less by the desire to learn than the fear of what will happen if they fail.

More specifically, students today are pushed to set what Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck calls "performance goals," where the priority is to get judged competent by others, and avoid criticism or failure. Getting an "A" on a French test is an example of a performance goal.

The other kind of goal -- the one we want our girls to have -- is a learning goal, where you want to get smarter and more competent in order to understand or master something. A learning goal might be learning to speak French.

Guess which kind of goal leads to true mastery? I'll give you a hint: It ain't the one mandated by the College Application Industrial Complex.

So, why is this a girl issue? Don't boys and girls suffer equally in the Complex? As I go deeper into the research, I'm finding gender differences that suggest girls may in fact be more vulnerable. Consider this study, which found that praising boys and girls for being smart (as opposed to praising their effort) damaged girls' intrinsic motivation significantly more than boys.

Research finds girls, especially high-achieving girls, are more debilitated by task confusion and failure. That is, they take it a lot harder. They are more likely to see failure as a sign of poor ability, while boys tend to interpret failure as circumstantial, and something easier to fix. Girls are also more likely to abandon challenges for safer harbors. Most recently, Harvard's Claudia Goldin found that freshmen Economics students left the field of study entirely when they failed to get A's.

But there's another factor in play that may have girls shouldering a heavier psychological burden around motivation: socialization. As girls grow up and download what it means to be a culturally acceptable "good girl," they learn to please others at the expense of themselves. They worry about protecting relationships -- and what people think of them -- at all costs. They become dependent on the opinions of others, often basing their self-esteem on the state of their relationships.

This has major implications for girls and motivation: if you're always focusing on others, you're less connected to yourself. We know girls disconnect from their strongest thoughts and feelings in adolescence; that's why their confidence takes a nosedive. Intrinsic motivation is dependent on having autonomy, "behaving with a full sense of volition and choice." If you're checked out about your own feelings, and particularly inclined to please others -- and you get rewarded for that in girlhood -- you may be motivated more by that than a drive coming from within.

What do we do about this? First, we start thinking more strategically about how to help girls reconnect with their intrinsic drive. The pioneers of this concept are Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester. They argue that when individuals have competence, autonomy and relatedness, intrinsic motivation can thrive. So let's start talking about how to cultivate that in girl-specific ways.

Here's one thing I read that can start us off. Deci and Ryan decided to follow U of R grads two years after college. They found that students driven by a sense of purpose about their lives -- a desire to "help others improve their lives, to learn and to grow" -- were happier, more satisfied, and less anxious and depressed than they were in college. Students who pursued profit goals --the extrinsic reward of money -- were no happier or satisfied than they were in college. They were more likely to be depressed, anxious and demonstrate several other negative indicators of well-being.

A handful of studies have found that girls enjoy leadership when it's connected to helping others -- when, in other words, it's driven by purpose. So if purpose drives girls, let's give them more opportunities to discover and exercise it -- and help them return to the joy of intrinsic motivation.