Already by Six Years Old

Already by Six Years Old February 1, 2017

Ed Yong:

“There are lots of people at the place where I work, but there is one person who is really special. This person is really, really smart,” said Lin Bian. “This person figures out how to do things quickly and comes up with answers much faster and better than anyone else. This person is really, really smart.”Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, read this story out to 240 children, aged 5 to 7. She then showed them pictures of four adults—two men and two women—and asked them to guess which was the protagonist of the story. She also gave them two further tests: one in which they had to guess which adult in a pair was “really, really smart”, and another where they had to match attributes like “smart” or “nice” to pictures of unfamiliar men and women.

The results were stark. Among the 5-year-olds, both boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender. But among those aged 6 or 7, only the boys still held to that view. At an age when girls tend to outperform boys at school, and when children in general show large positive biases towards their own in-groups, the girls became less likely than boys to attribute brilliance to their own gender. You could frame that as a good thing: While boys continued to believe in their own brilliance, the girls, on average, developed a more equal view. But that view has consequences—Bian also found that the older girls were less interested in games that were meant for “really, really smart” children.

“It was really heartbreaking,” she says.The stereotype that brilliance and genius are male traits is common among adults. In various surveys, men rate their intelligence more favorably than women, and in a recent study of biology undergraduates, men overrated the abilities of male students above equally talented and outspoken women. But Bian’s study shows that the seeds of this pernicious bias are planted at a very early age. Even by the age of 6, boys and girls are already diverging in who they think is smart. …

“We have to be more deliberate about presenting examples of brilliant women to girls and boys as young as five to help them avoid developing this association,” says Eddy. “Brilliant women exist, like Rosalind Franklin, Shirley Jackson, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, and Katherine G. Johnson, whose story is popularized in Hidden Figures.  We need to be talking about them more.”

“We can also emphasize the importance of hard work and effort in addition to brilliance,” says Bian. Psychologists like Carol Dweck have shown that many disadvantaged groups, including poor students and people of colour, suffer disproportionately from beliefs that intelligence is innate and fixed. “Simply changing disadvantaged high-school students’ perception of the malleability of IQ can cause substantial differences in drop-out rates,” says Gopnik.

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