Women Perform Better At Spacial Tasks When More Confident, Study Shows

12/12/2011 05:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012
  • Barbara & Shannon Kelley Speakers; Coauthors, "Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest For Perfect and Find The Career--and Life--That's Right For You"

Two new studies out last week show that the brain is mightier than the baggage -- especially when it comes to those stereotypes we women carry around in our backpacks.

Parallel parking: Good at it? And speaking of driving: Get lost much?

Stereotypes tell us that if you're a woman, your answer to the first question is probably a "nope." And to the second, often a "yes." But guess what? A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior tells us that it's often garden-variety confidence at play when it comes to spatial tasks like parking the car or reading a road map -- rather than gender-related abilities (or lack of same.)

Psychologists Zach Estes from the University of Warwick and Sydney Felker from the University of Georgia found that when you boost women's confidence, they do much better at the kinds of things at which they are presumed to suck. In the study, the researchers had women perform a standard 3D mental rotation task while manipulating their confidence levels, and suddenly their performance soared.

"Men tend to outperform women on spatial tasks, but this difference is at least partially due to women's lack of confidence on such tasks," Estes told us. "What we showed in four experiments is that when women are able to ignore this under-confidence, and when their confidence is boosted, they do just as well as men. What was most surprising to me was how simple, and possibly even obvious, it was to repeatedly eliminate this sex difference. The sex difference in mental rotation, which is what we measured, is the largest and most robust cognitive sex difference known. Yet, we managed to eliminate it four times with four simple controls and manipulations of confidence."

Pretty amazing, right? All of which has implications that go far beyond, say, packing a suitcase or playing a drop-dead game of Tetris. And that's the fact that the stereotypes that hold us back in the workplace, at school, in life itself can often be overridden by -- like the little engine that could -- giving ourselves a good kick in the self-esteem.

Back to Estes: "There is some really good research by social psychologists showing that if you reject stereotypes, performance by the stereotyped group typically improves," he says. "For instance, women also tend to do relatively worse than men on mathematical tasks, but getting women to reject that stereotype leads them to actually perform better too. Presumably, this has to do with increasing their confidence."

Wait. Mathematical tasks? Hold the calculator! We ourselves have written about the role of confidence (or lack of same) in holding women back, especially when it comes to careers in science or technology. Indeed, Estes points out that just knowing about a stereotype -- even if you don't believe in it -- can affect our performance, which often makes us more more tentative and less assertive.

"But at a more fundamental level," Estes says, "what appears to happen is that the effort required to monitor one's stereotyped behavior actually uses up cognitive resources that are necessary to do the task. So for instance, a female scientist might unconsciously monitor whether she's acting or thinking in a stereotypically female way, and that cognitive monitoring leaves fewer mental resources (e.g., active memory) for solving scientific problems."

Wow. But we digress. What Estes's study suggests is that negative stereotypes, and all the baggage they drag along with them, can be counteracted by a fat dose of confidence. "Our study suggests that boosting confidence in some other, unrelated task can also improve performance on the stereotyped task. The really good news for women is that negatively stereotyped behaviors are very easily improved. Even the largest cognitive sex difference [like those spatial tasks] can be eliminated by making confidence a non-issue. So whether a woman musters up the confidence on her own, or whether she gets it from some other source of positive feedback, the research suggests that she'll perform better. And that improvement can then create the opposite, more positive cycle, such that confidence begets better performance which in turn begets even more confidence. Eventually she'll reach her true potential, rather than wilting under the weight of the stereotype."

We think, therefore we can? Absolutely. What's more, we can change the way we think. One other study, by social psychologists Yuri Miyamoto and Li-Jun Ji, found that power promotes more analytic thinking which, at least in North American society, is associated with the ability to influence others and, well, more power. But that power business wasn't the most important part of their study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. What was most exciting, says Li-Jun Ji, a social scientist at the University of Ontario, was simply this: our thought processes are flexible -- more determined by social context than any sort of pre-programming. "Thinking styles can be learned or trained, for example, through social experience," she told us.

What this means, especially for women, is that our brains can adapt to suit the situation, which in turn gives us more agency and control in achieving our own goals -- possibly giving us a larger presence at the top of the ladder. Says Ji: "Social psychological research has shown that our own expectations of ourselves, as well as others' expectation of us, will affect our behaviors in social interactions, resulting in behaviors that confirm the original expectation."

In the women-are-screwed scenario, that can lead to a self perpetuating cycle. But the good news, as both Estes's and Ji's studies have shown, is that it's a cycle we have the power to break. As Ji points out, thinking is malleable, and in terms of her power-begets-power research, it's as easy as learning some basic influencing techniques. "Even small success will be rewarding and encouraging, and can come a long way in terms of increasing women's confidence in their opinions and in terms of boosting their self expectations," she says. In other words, whatever those stereotypes in our backpacks may be, we're not locked in.

To be sure, it takes more than a plucky sense of positive thinking to override all the structural and other issues that hold us back, but the overall message is this: we have more power than we may think. So long as we seize it.

Meanwhile, back to those original questions: I can parallel park like the best of them (though my bumpers might indicate otherwise), and as of today, trust me on this one, I will never get lost again.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to "Zachary Estes" as "Zachary Taylor."