Confidence Matters Just as Much as Ability

01/09/2012 11:27 am ET | Updated Mar 10, 2012

A bulk of research shows that when people are put in situations where they are expected to fail, their performance does plummet. They turn into different people. Their head literally shuts down, and they end up confirming the expectations. When they're expected to win, their performance shoots back up. Same person, difference expectations.

In recent years, this phenomenon has been studied in a variety of high-stakes testing situations. One area that has received a lot of attention is in the domain of mental rotation. Out of all the gender differences in cognition that have been reported in psychological literature, 3D mental rotation ability takes the cake. While it's true that there's more variability within each gender than across genders, the differences on average between males and females on mental rotation tasks are notably large, in some cases as much as a full standard deviation. (That's a big difference.)

Psychologists have been trying for years to figure out what factors are causing this difference. And there have been no shortage of speculations, ranging from purely biological explanations, to purely environmental factors, to middle-ground psychobiological views. While a number of different factors surely play a role, recent research suggests that the difference in performance may not have to do so much with actual ability, but perceptions of that ability.

People are aware of the stereotype that females have less aptitude at math and spatial skills than men. In fact, in one study almost half of the female participants endorsed this stereotype. This awareness matters. When asked to imagine themselves as a stereotypical male, females perform much better on a mental rotation task than when they are not given such an instruction. Additionally, when women are asked to report their gender before taking a mental rotation test, they perform much worse on the test than if they identify themselves as a "private college student." This finding has been explained by "stereotype threat" -- the tendency for members of a negatively stereotyped group to underperform on tasks relevant a culturally salient stereotype. According to this account, having females report their gender before taking the mental rotation task makes the cultural stereotype more salient to them, thus causing performance-reducing anxiety.

It's intriguing how easily these effects can be nudged, for both males and females. In another important study, both men and women completed a test of mental rotation, and were then either informed that men do better on the task, or women do better on the task. The same participants then took another test of mental rotation. Women performed significantly worse after being told men do better on the task, whereas women who were told that women do better on the task performed significantly better at the very same task. Similarly, men performed better after being told that men are better at the task and performed worse after being told that women are better at the task. What we believe is true matters. To a very large extent, our beliefs create our own reality.

But what's the psychological mechanism at play here? Some stereotype threat researchers have proposed that confidence is playing a key role here. Perhaps the stereotype threat is impacting confidence, and it is this decrease in confidence that is impacting performance. To test whether confidence explains the gender difference in mental rotation performance, Zachary Estes and Sydney Felker conducted four recent experiments. They administered the most common test of mental rotation, the Mental Rotations Test (MRT). In this test, participants are presented with one standard figure and four alternative figures. Two of the alternative figures are rotated versions of the standard figure, whereas the other two are mirror images of the standard figure. Here's an example:


Their findings are quite striking. First it should be noted that confident people, regardless of their gender, tended to be more accurate. So confidence matters for everyone. They did find statistically significant gender effects though. Consistent with prior research, males on average were more confident and more accurate than women on the mental rotation test. Note these are only averages, there were women who were more confident and performed better than men. At any rate, when confidence was taken into account, the gender difference in mental rotation scores almost completely evaporated. This is quite impressive, considering there are very few studies showing that one variable can completely account for this very large gender difference.

Of course, it's still not super clear whether it's really confidence, and not mental rotation ability, that is causing the gender difference in mental rotation performance. To get to the bottom of this, the researchers manipulated confidence, keeping everything else the same. The way they manipulated confidence was quite clever. The way the task is typically administered, participants can omit responses. Research does show that females tend to offer fewer responses than males on the Mental Rotations Task. The researchers wondered whether the possibility of omitting responses makes confidence an important factor in performing on the task. When participants aren't required to respond, their confidence becomes relevant to the task, but when participants are required to respond, confidence should have less of an effect on performance since the person doesn't have to evaluate their confidence on each trial.

To test this possibility, one group took the Mental Rotations Test, but were allowed to omit trials whenever they wanted. In contrast, another group was required to respond on every single trial. While they found the typical gender difference using the standard instructions, males and females did not differ from each other when they were required to give an answer on each trial. These findings support the idea that the gender differences on this task is specifically related to confidence, not ability. Once participants were again required to rate their confidence levels on each trial, a gender difference once again emerged on the task.

Finally, the researchers manipulated confidence prior to the experiment. First they had participants complete a difficult line judgment task. Performance on this task was near chance for both males and females. After completing the task, participants were randomly told either that their performance was above average or it was below average. Then, participants completed the Mental Rotations Task. Regardless of gender, those who were told that their performance on the line judgement task was above average performed better on the mental rotation task than those who were told they performed below average on the task. As they found in their prior studies, males on average outperformed females on the Mental Rotation Task. However, there was no difference in performance between females in the higher confidence group and males in the low confidence group.

Taken together, the researchers conclude that "the sex difference in mental rotation appears to be a difference of performance rather than ability." Their results are definitely intriguing since confidence explained such a large part of the gender difference in mental rotation performance. Of course, there's probably no one single cause of the sex difference in mental rotation ability. As the researchers note, few investigations combine multiple levels of analysis. This integration is important.

One potential area of integration is working memory. Working memory reflects the ability to store information in your mind while simultaneously processing or transforming other information. A few years back, I conducted a study that found that spatial working memory, but not verbal working memory, explained the gender difference in spatial ability. I thought these findings were really interesting, as it suggested that the cause of the gender difference was very specific to the storage of spatial information while processing other information, but was not generalized to more general working memory resources. The researchers of the current study cite my study, and speculate that confidence may be related to working memory. I find this suggestion a real possibility. Research does show that stereotype threat reduces the working memory resources available for solving the task at hand. Perhaps many of us -- male and female alike -- when faced with threatening situations, have decreased confidence, which then lowers the working memory resources specific to the task at hand.

So what can we do as a society to give people more of a chance to display their true colors? The researchers offer the following advice:

Potentially effective methods for achieving this outcome include rejecting the negative stereotype that women have poor spatial skills, encouraging women to view spatial skills as learnable, encouraging females to engage in more spatial tasks, and providing positive feedback when they do so.

Sensible advice, but I think this is sensible advice for just about everyone -- male and female -- and for every form of ability -- math, English, artistic, musical, whatever. So much research now shows the importance of mindset, self-belief and confidence on performance. I look forward to more research that integrates multiple levels of analysis.

So many important questions are still left to answer. What does confidence buy you? In addition to greater access to working memory resources, does it also support the use of better strategies for solving the problem? What factors increase confidence? Clearly encouragement plays a huge role. Do hormones also have an effect? What's the role of brain lateralization? Perhaps confidence affects hormones and brain lateralization just as much as hormones and brain lateralization influence confidence. What about repeated exposure and experience in a domain? Excellent research by Sian Beilock and others shows that expertise can overcome the detrimental affects of threatening situations.

So many potential avenues of exploration. While we may only be at the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of how biology, environmental factors, self-belief, emotions and cognition all interact to influence performance, this is an iceberg that is pretty darn important and impacts the success of everyone.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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