Developmental Stage

Publication Type

Many students find math difficult, but those who are intrinsically motivated learn and do well even when they face obstacles. Here, the authors examine an environmental factor that might affect students' intrinsic motivation in math: namely, teachers' beliefs about success in math. Do teachers perceive elementary school math as a domain that requires an innate ability, and does this belief relate to students' intrinsic motivation in math? Our study explored these questions in a sample of 830 German fourth graders and their 56 teachers. Teachers reported stronger beliefs in the role of innate ability for math than for German language arts. In addition, the more teachers believed that math requires innate ability, the lower was the intrinsic motivation of their low-achieving students. These results suggest that teachers’ beliefs that math success depends on innate ability may be an important obstacle to creating a classroom atmosphere that fosters engagement and learning for all students.

Despite the numerous intellectual contributions made by women, we find evidence of bias against them in contexts that emphasize intellectual ability. In the first experiment, 347 participants were asked to refer individuals for a job. Approximately half of the participants were led to believe that the job required high-level intellectual ability; the other half were not. A Bayesian mixed-effects logistic regression revealed that the odds of referring a woman were 38.3% lower when the job description mentioned intellectual ability, consistent with the possibility of gender bias. We also found evidence of gender bias in Experiment 2, which was a preregistered direct replication of Experiment 1 with a larger and more diverse sample (811 participants; 44.6% people of color). Experiment 3 provided a developmental investigation of this bias by testing whether young children favor boys over girls in the context of intellectually challenging activities. Five- to 7-year-olds (N = 192) were taught how to play a team game. Half of the children were told that the game was for “really, really smart” children; the other half were not. Children then selected three teammates from among six unfamiliar children. Children’s initial selections were driven by ingroup bias (i.e., girls chose girls and boys chose boys), but children subsequently showed bias against girls, choosing girls as teammates for the “smart” game only 37.6% of the time (vs. 53.4% for the other game). Bias against women and girls in contexts where brilliance is prized emerges early and is a likely obstacle to their success.

This article provides an overview of research by Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie on how stereotypes about intelligence can negatively influence women and minorities in certain academic fields. They also discuss how mindset interventions and developing learning mindsets offer one way to offset these negative effects.

Pervasive cultural stereotypes associate brilliance with men, not women. Given these stereotypes, messages suggesting that a career requires brilliance may undermine women’s interest. Consistent with this hypothesis, linking success to brilliance lowered women’s (but not men’s) interest in a range of educational and professional opportunities introduced via hypothetical scenarios. It also led women more than men to expect that they would feel anxious and would not belong. These gender differences were explained in part by women’s perception that they are different from the typical person in these contexts. In sum, the present research reveals that certain messages—in particular, those suggesting that brilliance is essential to success—may contribute to the gender gaps that are present in many fields.

Common stereotypes associate high-level intellectual ability (brilliance, genius, etc.) with men more than women. These stereotypes discourage women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers; that is, women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance (such as physics and philosophy). In this paper, the research team shows that these stereotypes are endorsed by, and influence the interests of, children as young as 6. Specifically, 6-year-old girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” Also at age 6, girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are “really, really smart.” These findings suggest that gendered notions of brilliance are acquired early and have an immediate effect on children’s interests.

Women and African Americans—groups targeted by negative stereotypes about their intellectual abilities—may be underrepresented in careers that prize brilliance and genius. A recent nationwide survey of academics provided initial support for this possibility. Fields whose practitioners believed that natural talent is crucial for success had fewer female and African American PhDs. The present study seeks to replicate this initial finding with a different, and arguably more naturalistic, measure of the extent to which brilliance and genius are prized within a field. The study found that fields in which the words “brilliant” and “genius” were used more frequently on also had fewer female and African American PhDs. The fact that this naturalistic measure of a field’s focus on brilliance predicted the magnitude of its gender and race gaps speaks to the tight link between ability beliefs and diversity.

The ability to take information learned about one object (e.g., a cat) and extend it to other objects (e.g., a tiger, a lion) makes human learning efficient and powerful. How are these inductive generalizations performed? Fisher, Godwin, and Matlen (2015) propose a developmental mechanism that operates exclusively over the perceptual and semantic features of the objects involved (e.g., furry, carnivorous); this proposed mechanism does not use information concerning these objects’ category membership. In the present commentary, we argue that Fisher and colleagues’ experiments cannot differentiate between their feature-based mechanism and its category-based competitors. More broadly, we suggest that any proposal that doesn’t take into account the central role of category representations in children’s mental lives is likely to mischaracterize the development of inductive generalization. The key question is not whether, but how, categories are involved in children’s generalizations.

Women’s underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a prominent concern in our society and many others. Closer inspection of this phenomenon reveals a more nuanced picture, however, with women achieving parity with men at the Ph.D. level in certain STEM fields, while also being underrepresented in some non-STEM fields. In two studies, we demonstrate that the academic fields believed by laypeople to require brilliance are also the fields with lower female representation.

Preschoolers watched a puppet show in which the protagonist drew a picture and was praised by a teacher. Children who saw the protagonist receive generic praise about his ability (“You are a good drawer”) were more upset when the protagonist subsequently made a mistake, and less likely to want to draw themselves compared to children who saw the protagonist praised only for that specific drawing (“You did a good job drawing”).

Both male and female children who were told that boys or girls in general are good at an activity (generic language) displayed lower motivation when performing a novel activity, as compared to children who were told that a particular boy or girl is good at it (non-generic language). Generic statements may be detrimental because they express normative societal expectations for performance and because they imply that performance is the result of stable traits rather than effort and process.

The performance of children on an unfamiliar, challenging activity was impaired when they were exposed to information that associated success in the task at hand with membership in a certain social group (e.g., "boys are good at this game"), regardless of their own membership in that group.

The perception of certain academic disciplines requiring a special type of brilliance (vs. motivation and sustained effort) may help explain the underrepresentation of women in those fields. The authors suggest that faculty and graduate students convey their own attitudes to undergraduate students, who internalize these beliefs before making career decisions. Given the stereotype that fewer women than men possess this type of "brilliance", female undergraduates may feel discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees in fields perceived to be particularly dependent on this type of brilliance. Since they are not subject to the same stereotype, male students may not experience this same concern.