I had a colleague, a third-grade teacher, who spent most of August sorting books into leveled baskets, going steady with the laminating machine, and running up colorful curtains for the door to her classroom. Her husband, a secondary social studies teacher, would mark the beginning of the school year by wandering around the house, trying to find his thermos. This was immensely irritating to her, of course. But it’s hard to say who was the better teacher.
I had 30 first days of school as a teacher. Here’s my—very non-standard—advice for teachers, on gearing up for the new year.
1. Don’t work too hard at unimportant things, like fancy bulletin boards. The most important thing you can do before school starts is think about the curriculum and the kids you’re teaching. You’re not likely to achieve a high-functioning, intellectually cooking Day One, anyway. You’re aiming for Day Four or maybe Day Eleven, once you have a sense of who’s sitting in the desks (or on the floor), and how to get them to work together.
This is not a half-baked “make it up as you go along” theory of instruction, by the way. I know that curriculum has never been less open to creativity –and Important Metrics are looming. You’ve got a big job to do. But–as the salesman says, in The Music Man–you gotta know the territory.
2. Walk around the building and say hello to all of your colleagues. Even if the interaction lasts 30 seconds, and you’re not particularly fond of the teacher / aide / principal / secretary / custodian in question. There is nothing more effective than a school building where adults get along, respect each other and have the same goals. I am always amazed when teachers bitterly complain about the kids bickering in their classrooms, then proceed to ignore or castigate their fellow staff members. Build a few relationships. Welcome newbies. Thank the custodians for the shiny floors.
3. When it comes to advance planning, keep your options open. Don’t write detailed lesson plans for a semester. Plan for a week, maybe, just to ensure you have enough rabbits to pull out of your stovepipe and keep the kiddies busy. Set overarching goals, for sure. But it’s folly to think you have the flow of instruction and learning for the next six weeks under your control. The watchword: learn as you go.
4. Corollary: For now, plan grandly, not precisely. Think about the things students need to know for the next decade, not the next standardized test or unit quiz. Not even the end-of-course or college admissions exams. Focus on things they need to master and understand before adulthood. Very soon, you will be dealing with the ordinary grind: daily lesson plans–plus assemblies, field trips, plays, the school newspaper, the spelling bee, the science fair, yada yada.But those are the trees. Think about the forest. What do you want your students to take away, forever, from your teaching? Which big ideas? What critical skills? It’s easy to forget the grand picture, once the year gets rolling. Take the time to do it now. Dream.
5. Make your classroom a pleasant place for you, too. In addition to being a place where students learn, it’s the place where you work, both with and without kids. (And, yes, I spent a year on a cart, so I know this recommendation may seem specious.) Most of us teach in a place that, stripped to its essentials, feels institutional, to some degree–if not downright unsightly. Find a way to have comfortable seating, task lighting, pictures or tchotchkes that make you smile. It doesn’t have to be pretty and color-coordinated–many wonderful classrooms have that “kids’ playroom/teenage basement” aura. Still, forget those admonitions about too much personalizing–a classroom should feel like home. One of my former students just posted this marvelous, home-made, vocabulary wall that her students can absorb all year long. (Thumbs up, Lin!)
6. Don’t make Day One “rules” day. Your classroom procedures are very important, a hinge for functioning productively, establishing the relationships and trust necessary for individual engagement and group discussions. Introduce these strategies and systems on days when it’s likely your students will remember them and get a chance to practice them. This is especially important for secondary teachers, whose students will likely experience a mind-numbing, forgettable parade of Teacher Rules on Day One.
7. Instead, give students a taste of disciplinary knowledge on the first day of school. Teachsomething, using your most engaging instructional techniques–perhaps a game, a round-robin, a quick-response exercise with no wrong answers. Bonus points for something involving physical movement. Beware of empty ice-breakers or team-building exercises–your goal is to have students going out the door saying “I think this class is going to be fun, and I already learned something.”
8. Keep your expectations about the first few days modest. You will probably be nervous (and have bad dreams), even if you’ve been teaching for 30 years–I always did. The students will be keyed up, too–it takes a couple days for them to settle in and behave as they usually do. Wait for your teacher buzz to kick in–that happy moment when you see engagement, maybe even laughter, and you know you’re on the right track. It takes a while, but when it happens, it’s like the first flower in the spring garden.
10. Tie your classroom to the world. There’s been a lot of on-line chatter about the presidential election, and its impact on kids. Even if you teach kindergarten–or chemistry–you can’t avoid the same kinds of chatter in your classroom. Use the daily news as backdrop for modeling civil interactions and substantive debate on the content you teach. Read picture books on immigration. Take your AP Stats class to FiveThirtyEight.com and assign your physical education students to watch Simone Biles. What are YOU currently watching, reading or discussing? Share. Help your students analyze issues or find role models.
The AtlanticEvidence shows that women are less self-assured than men—and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence. Here’s why, and what to do about it.
for years, we women have kept our heads down and played by the rules. We’ve been certain that with enough hard work, our natural talents would be recognized and rewarded.
We’ve made undeniable progress. In the United States, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management. Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Our competence has never been more obvious. Those who closely follow society’s shifting values see the world moving in a female direction.
And yet, as we’ve worked, ever diligent, the men around us have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more. The statistics are well known: at the top, especially, women are nearly absent, and our numbers are barely increasing. Half a century since women first forced open the boardroom doors, our career trajectories still look very different from men’s.
Some observers say children change our priorities, and there is some truth in this claim. Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. There’s truth in that, too. But these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.
The elusive nature of confidence has intrigued us ever since we started work on our 2009 book, Womenomics, which looked at the many positive changes unfolding for women. To our surprise, as we talked with women, dozens of them, all accomplished and credentialed, we kept bumping up against a dark spot that we couldn’t quite identify, a force clearly holding them back. Why did the successful investment banker mention to us that she didn’t really deserve the big promotion she’d just got? What did it mean when the engineer who’d been a pioneer in her industry for decades told us offhandedly that she wasn’t sure she was really the best choice to run her firm’s new big project? In two decades of covering American politics as journalists, we realized, we have between us interviewed some of the most influential women in the nation. In our jobs and our lives, we walk among people you would assume brim with confidence. And yet our experience suggests that the power centers of this nation are zones of female self-doubt—that is, when they include women at all.
We know the feeling firsthand. Comparing notes about confidence over dinner one night last year, despite how well we knew each other, was a revelation. Katty got a degree from a top university, speaks several languages, and yet had spent her life convinced that she just wasn’t intelligent enough to compete for the most-prestigious jobs in journalism. She still entertained the notion that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth.
Claire found that implausible, laughable really, and yet she had a habit of telling people she was “just lucky”—in the right place at the right time—when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s. And she, too, for years, routinely deferred to the alpha-male journalists around her, assuming that because they were so much louder, so much more certain, they just knew more. She subconsciously believed that they had a right to talk more on television. But were they really more competent? Or just more self-assured?
We began to talk with other highly successful women, hoping to find instructive examples of raw, flourishing female confidence. But the more closely we looked, the more we instead found evidence of its shortage.
The All-Star WNBA player Monique Currie, of the Washington Mystics, displays dazzling agility and power on the basketball court. On the subject of confidence, however, she sounded disconcertingly like us. Currie rolled her eyes when we asked whether her wellspring of confidence was as deep as that of a male athlete. “For guys,” she said, in a slightly mystified, irritated tone, “I think they have maybe 13- or 15-player rosters, but all the way down to the last player on the bench, who doesn’t get to play a single minute, I feel like his confidence is just as big as the superstar of the team.” She smiled and shook her head. “For women, it’s not like that.”The tech entrepreneur Clara Shih, who founded the successful social-media company Hearsay Social in 2010 and joined the board of Starbucks at the tender age of 29, is one of the few female CEOs in the still-macho world of Silicon Valley. But as an undergrad at Stanford, she told us, she was convinced that courses she found difficult were easy for others. Although Shih would go on to graduate with the highest GPA of any computer-science major in her class, she told us that at times she “felt like an imposter.” As it happens, this is essentially what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told us a year before her book, Lean In, was published: “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
We were inspired by these conversations, and many more, to write a book on the subject, with a particular eye to whether a lack of confidence might be holding women back. We ended up covering much more territory than we’d originally anticipated, ranging from the trait’s genetic components to how it manifests itself in animals to what coaches and psychologists have learned about cultivating it. Much of what we discovered turns out to be relevant to both women and men.
Even as our understanding of confidence expanded, however, we found that our original suspicion was dead-on: there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.
The shortage of female confidence is increasingly well quantified and well documented. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management, in the United Kingdom, surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.
Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Women Don’t Ask, has found, in studies of business-school students, that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do. At Manchester Business School, in England, professor Marilyn Davidson has seen the same phenomenon, and believes that it comes from a lack of confidence. Each year she asks her students what they expect to earn, and what they deserve to earn, five years after graduation. “I’ve been doing this for about seven years,” she has written, “and every year there are massive differences between the male and female responses.” On average, she reports, the men think they deserve $80,000 a year and the women $64,000—or 20 percent less.
A meticulous 2003 study by the Cornell psychologist David Dunning and the Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger homed in on the relationship between female confidence and competence. At the time, Dunning and a Cornell colleague, Justin Kruger, were just finishing their seminal work on something that’s since been dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect: the tendency for some people to substantially overestimate their abilities. The less competent people are, the more they overestimate their abilities—which makes a strange kind of sense.
Dunning and Ehrlinger wanted to focus specifically on women, and the impact of women’s preconceived notions about their own ability on their confidence. They gave male and female college students a quiz on scientific reasoning. Before the quiz, the students rated their own scientific skills. “We wanted to see whether your general perception of Am I good in science? shapes your impression of something that should be separate: Did I get this question right?,” Ehrlinger said. The women rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability: on a scale of 1 to 10, the women gave themselves a 6.5 on average, and the men gave themselves a 7.6. When it came to assessing how well they answered the questions, the women thought they got 5.8 out of 10 questions right; men, 7.1. And how did they actually perform? Their average was almost the same—women got 7.5 out of 10 right and men 7.9.
To show the real-world impact of self-perception, the students were then invited—having no knowledge of how they’d performed—to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men. “That was a proxy for whether women might seek out certain opportunities,” Ehrlinger told us. “Because they are less confident in general in their abilities, that led them not to want to pursue future opportunities.”
In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.
Talking with Ehrlinger, we were reminded of something Hewlett-Packard discovered several years ago, when it was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.
Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, started studying the problem of self-perception decades ago. “As a young professor,” she told us, “I would set up a test where I’d ask men and women how they thought they were going to do on a variety of tasks.” She found that the men consistently overestimated their abilities and subsequent performance, and that the women routinely underestimated both. The actual performances did not differ in quality. “It is one of the most consistent findings you can have,” Major says of the experiment. Today, when she wants to give her students an example of a study whose results are utterly predictable, she points to this one.
On the other side of the country, the same thing plays out every day in Victoria Brescoll’s lecture hall at Yale’s School of Management. M.B.A. students are nurtured specifically to project confidence in the fashion demanded by today’s business world. But although all of her students are top-of-the-chart smart, she’s been startled to uncover her female students’ lack of belief in themselves.
“There’s just a natural sort of feeling among the women that they will not get a prestigious job, so why bother trying,” she explained. “Or they think that they are not totally competent in the area, so they’re not going to go for it.” As a result, female students tend to opt out. “They end up going into less competitive fields, like human resources or marketing,” she said. “They don’t go for finance, investment banks, or senior-track faculty positions.”
And the men?
“I think that’s really interesting,” Brescoll said with a laugh, “because the men go into everything just assuming that they’re awesome and thinking, Who wouldn’t want me?”
Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. If anything, men tilt toward overconfidence—and we were surprised to learn that they come by that state quite naturally. They aren’t consciously trying to fool anyone. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, has come up with a term for this phenomenon: honest overconfidence. In a study he published in 2011, men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was.
We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist. One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense. He eventually concluded that confidence should be a formal part of the performance-review process, because it is such an important aspect of doing business.
The fact is, overconfidence can get you far in life. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist who works in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career of studying overconfidence. In 2009, he conducted some novel tests to compare the relative value of confidence and competence. He gave a group of 242 students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.
Among the names were some well-disguised fakes: a Queen Shaddock made an appearance, as did a Galileo Lovano, and an event dubbed Murphy’s Last Ride. The experiment was a way of measuring excessive confidence, Anderson reasoned. The fact that some students checked the fakes instead of simply leaving them blank suggested that they believed they knew more than they actually did. At the end of the semester, Anderson asked the students to rate one another in a survey designed to assess each individual’s prominence within the group. The students who had picked the most fakes had achieved the highest status.
Confidence, Anderson told us, matters just as much as competence. We didn’t want to believe it, and we pressed him for alternative theories. But deep down, we knew we’d seen the same phenomenon for years. Within any given organization, be it an investment bank or the PTA, some individuals tend to be more admired and more listened to than others. They are not necessarily the most knowledgeable or capable people in the room, but they are the most self-assured.
“When people are confident, when they think they are good at something, regardless of how good they actually are, they display a lot of confident nonverbal and verbal behavior,” Anderson said. He mentioned expansive body language, a lower vocal tone, and a tendency to speak early and often in a calm, relaxed manner. “They do a lot of things that make them look very confident in the eyes of others,” he added. “Whether they are good or not is kind of irrelevant.” Kind of irrelevant. Infuriatingly, a lack of competence doesn’t necessarily have negative consequences. Among Anderson’s students, those who displayed more confidence than competence were admired by the rest of the group and awarded a high social status. “The most confident people were just considered the most beloved in the group,” he said. “Their overconfidence did not come across as narcissistic.”
That is a crucial point. True overconfidence is not mere bluster. Anderson thinks the reason extremely confident people don’t alienate others is that they aren’t faking it. They genuinely believe they are good, and that self-belief is what comes across. Fake confidence, he told us, just doesn’t work in the same way. Studies Anderson is now conducting suggest that others can see the “tells.” No matter how much bravado someone musters, when he doesn’t genuinely believe he is good, others pick up on his shifting eyes and rising voice and other giveaways. Most people can spot fake confidence from a mile away.
Women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent.
Once we got over our feeling that Anderson’s work suggests a world that is deeply unfair, we could see a useful lesson: For decades, women have misunderstood an important law of the professional jungle. It’s not enough to keep one’s head down and plug away, checking items off a list. Having talent isn’t merely about being competent; confidence is a part of that talent. You have to have it to excel.
We also began to see that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance—or other people—for their successes. (Men seem to do the opposite.) David Dunning, the Cornell psychologist, offered the following case in point: In Cornell’s math Ph.D. program, he’s observed, there’s a particular course during which the going inevitably gets tough. Dunning has noticed that male students typically recognize the hurdle for what it is, and respond to their lower grades by saying, “Wow, this is a tough class.” That’s what’s known as external attribution, and in a situation like this, it’s usually a healthy sign of resilience. Women tend to respond differently. When the course gets hard, Dunning told us, their reaction is more likely to be “You see, I knew I wasn’t good enough.” That’s internal attribution, and it can be debilitating.
Perfectionism is another confidence killer. Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required. We watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified. We fixate on our performance at home, at school, at work, at yoga class, even on vacation. We obsess as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as friends, as cooks, as athletes. Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, the authors of The Plateau Effect, call this tendency the “enemy of the good,” leading as it does to hours of wasted time. The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done.
So where does all of this start? If women are competent and hardworking enough to outpace men in school, why is it so difficult to keep up later on? As with so many questions involving human behavior, both nature and nurture are implicated in the answers.
The very suggestion that male and female brains might be built differently and function in disparate ways has long been a taboo subject among women, out of fear that any difference would be used against us. For decades—for centuries, actually—differences (real or imagined) were used against us. So let’s be clear: male and female brains are vastly more alike than they are different. You can’t look at scans of two random brains and clearly identify which is male and which is female. Moreover, each individual’s confidence level is influenced by a host of genetic factors that do not seem to have anything to do with his or her sex.
Girls lose confidence, so they quit competing in sports, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.
Yet male and female brains do display differences in structure and chemistry, differences that may encourage unique patterns of thinking and behavior, and that could thereby affect confidence. This is a busy area of inquiry, with a steady stream of new—if frequently contradictory, and controversial—findings. Some of the research raises the intriguing possibility that brain structure could figure into variations between the way men and women respond to challenging or threatening circumstances. Take, for example, the amygdalae, sometimes described as the brain’s primitive fear centers. They are involved in processing emotional memory and responding to stressful situations. Studies using fMRI scans have found that women tend to activate their amygdalae more easily in response to negative emotional stimuli than men do—suggesting that women are more likely than men to form strong emotional memories of negative events. This difference seems to provide a physical basis for a tendency that’s been observed in behavioral studies: compared with men, women are more apt to ruminate over what’s gone wrong in the past. Or consider the anterior cingulate cortex. This little part of the brain helps us recognize errors and weigh options; some people call it the worrywart center. And, yes, it’s larger in women. In evolutionary terms, there are undoubtedly benefits to differences like these: women seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats. Yet such qualities are a mixed blessing today.
You could say the same about hormonal influences on cognition and behavior. We all know testosterone and estrogen as the forces behind many of the basic, overt differences between men and women. It turns out they are involved in subtler personality dynamics as well. The main hormonal driver for women is, of course, estrogen. By supporting the part of the brain involved in social skills and observations, estrogen seems to encourage bonding and connection, while discouraging conflict and risk taking—tendencies that might well hinder confidence in some contexts.
Testosterone, on the other hand, helps to fuel what often looks like classic male confidence. Men have about 10 times more testosterone pumping through their system than women do, and it affects everything from speed to strength to muscle size to competitive instinct. It is thought of as the hormone that encourages a focus on winning and demonstrating power, and for good reason. Recent research has tied high testosterone levels to an appetite for risk taking. In a series of studies, scientists from Cambridge University followed male traders at a London hedge fund, all high rollers (with annual bonuses greater than $5 million). Using saliva samples, the researchers measured the men’s testosterone levels at the start and end of each day. On days when traders began with higher levels of testosterone, they made riskier trades. When those trades paid off, their testosterone levels surged further. One trader saw his testosterone level rise 74 percent over a six-day winning streak.
There’s a downside to testosterone, to be sure. As we’ve just seen, higher levels of the hormone fuel risk taking, and winning yields still more testosterone. This dynamic, sometimes known as the “winner effect,” can be dangerous: animals can become so aggressive and overconfident after winning fights that they take fatal risks. Moreover, a testosterone-laced decision isn’t always a better one. In research conducted at University College London, women who were given testosterone were less able to collaborate, and wrong more often. And several studies of female hedge-fund managers show that taking the longer view and trading less can pay off: investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperform those run by male managers.
So what are the implications of all this? The essential chicken-and-egg question still to be answered is to what extent these differences between men and women are inherent, and to what extent they are a result of life experiences. The answer is far from clear-cut, but new work on brain plasticity is generating growing evidence that our brains do change in response to our environment. Even hormone levels may be less preordained than one might suppose: researchers have found that testosterone levels in men decline when they spend more time with their children.
For some clues about the role that nurture plays in the confidence gap, let’s look to a few formative places: the elementary-school classroom, the playground, and the sports field. School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy. But while being a “good girl” may pay off in the classroom, it doesn’t prepare us very well for the real world. As Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, put it to us: “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.”
It’s easier for young girls than for young boys to behave: As is well established, they start elementary school with a developmental edge in some key areas. They have longer attention spans, more-advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, and greater social adeptness. They generally don’t charge through the halls like wild animals, or get into fights during recess. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly. “Girls seem to be more easily socialized,” Dweck says. “They get a lot of praise for being perfect.” In turn, they begin to crave the approval they get for being good. There’s certainly no harm intended by overworked, overstressed teachers (or parents). Who doesn’t want a kid who works hard and doesn’t cause a lot of trouble?
What doomed the women was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice not to try.
And yet the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. “When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct,” Dweck writes in Mindset. Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. “Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,” she says, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.”
Boys also benefit from the lessons they learn—or, more to the point, the lessons they teach one another—during recess and after school. From kindergarten on, they roughhouse, tease one another, point out one another’s limitations, and call one another morons and slobs. In the process, Dweck contends, such evaluations “lose a lot of their power.” Boys thus make one another more resilient. Other psychologists we spoke with believe that this playground mentality encourages them later, as men, to let other people’s tough remarks slide off their backs. Similarly, on the sports field, they learn not only to relish wins but also to flick off losses.
Too many girls, by contrast, miss out on really valuable lessons outside of school. We all know that playing sports is good for kids, but we were surprised to learn just how extensive the benefits are, and how relevant to confidence. Studies evaluating the impact of the 1972 Title IX legislation, which made it illegal for public schools to spend more on boys’ athletics than on girls’, have found that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult. Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. And yet, despite Title IX, fewer girls than boys participate in athletics, and many who do quit early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls are still six times as likely as boys to drop off sports teams, with the steepest decline in participation coming during adolescence. This is probably because girls suffer a larger decrease in self-esteem during that time than do boys.
What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it. They leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant Spanish subjunctives, proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please. But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and they don’t realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.
Consider the following tale of two employees. A female friend of ours in New York was supervising two 20‑something junior staffers, one female (whom we will call Rebecca) and one male (whom we will call Robert). Even though Robert had been on the job for only a few months, he was already stopping by our friend’s office to make off-the-cuff pitches for new ad campaigns, to comment on business strategy, and to share unsolicited opinions about magazine articles he’d recently read. Our friend often found herself shooting down his ideas, correcting his misperceptions, and sending him off for further research. “No problem” seemed to be his attitude. Sometimes he’d respond with a counterargument; other times, he’d grin and shrug his shoulders as he headed back to his desk. A few days later, he’d be back in to pitch more ideas and to update her on what he was doing, even if all he had to say was “I’m still working on this.”
Our friend was struck by how easily Robert engaged her, and how markedly different his behavior was from that of Rebecca, with whom she’d worked for several years. Rebecca still made appointments to speak with her and always prepared a list of issues for their discussions. She was mostly quiet in meetings with clients, focused as she was on taking careful notes. She never blurted out her ideas; she wrote them up with comprehensive analyses of pros and cons. Rebecca was prepared and hardworking, and yet, even though our friend was frequently annoyed by Robert’s assertiveness, she was more impressed by him. She admired his willingness to be wrong and his ability to absorb criticism without being discouraged. Rebecca, by contrast, took negative feedback hard, sometimes responding with tears and a trip to her own office to collect herself before the conversation could continue.
Our friend had come to rely on and value Rebecca, but she had a feeling it was Robert’s star that would rise. It was only a matter of time before one of his many ideas would strike the right note, and he’d be off and running—probably, our friend was beginning to fear, while Rebecca was left behind, enjoying the respect of her colleagues but not a higher salary, more responsibilities, or a more important title.
Here’s a thorny question: If Rebecca did behave just like Robert, exhibiting his kind of confidence, what would her boss think then? There is evidence that Rebecca wouldn’t fare so well, whether her boss was male or female.
Which is why any discussion of this subject requires a major caveat. Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.
Back at the Yale School of Management, Victoria Brescoll has tested the thesis that the more senior a woman is, the more she makes a conscious effort to play down her volubility—the reverse of how most men handle power. In the first of two experiments, she asked 206 participants, both men and women, to imagine themselves as either the most senior figure or the most junior figure in a meeting. Then she asked them how much they’d talk. Those men who’d imagined themselves as the senior figure reported that they would talk more; men who’d picked the junior position said they’d talk less. But women who’d selected the high-ranking role said they would talk the same amount as those women who’d envisioned themselves as the low-ranking woman. Asked why, they said they didn’t want to be disliked, or seem out of line. In Brescoll’s next experiment, men and women rated a fictitious female CEO who talked more than other people. The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.
So confident women can find themselves in a catch-22. For now, though, for Rebecca and for most women, coming across as too confident is not the problem.
When we embarked on this quest two years ago, we had a slight conflict of interest. As journalists, we were exhilarated by the puzzle of why high-achieving women were so lacking in confidence, but as women, we grew gloomy. Delving into research and interviews, we more than once found ourselves wondering whether the entire female sex was doomed to feel less than self-assured. Biology, upbringing, society: all seemed to be conspiring against women’s confidence.
But as our understanding of this elusive quality shifted, we began to see the outlines of a remedy. Confidence is not, as we once believed, just feeling good about yourself. If women simply needed a few words of reassurance, they’d have commandeered the corner office long ago. Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” Of course, other factors also contribute to action. “If the action involves something scary, then what we call courage might also be needed,” Petty explained. “Or if it’s difficult, a strong will to persist might also be needed. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role.” But confidence, he told us, is essential, because it applies in more situations than these other traits do. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.
The simplicity is compelling, and the notion that confidence and action are interrelated suggests a virtuous circle. Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure.
We found perhaps the most striking illustration of how the connection between action and confidence might play out to women’s benefit in Milan. There we tracked down Zachary Estes, a research psychologist who’s long been curious about the confidence disparity between men and women. A few years ago, he gave 500 students a series of tests that involved reorganizing 3‑D images on a computer screen. He was testing a couple of things—the idea that confidence can be manipulated and the idea that, in some areas, women have less of it than men.
When Estes had the students solve a series of these spatial puzzles, the women scored measurably worse than the men did. But when he looked at the results more closely, he found that the women had done poorly because they hadn’t even attempted to answer a lot of the questions. So he repeated the experiment, this time telling the students they had to at least try to solve all the puzzles. And guess what: the women’s scores increased sharply, matching the men’s. Maddening. Yet also hopeful.
Estes’s work illustrates a key point: the natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do.
Using a different test, Estes asked everyone to answer every question. Both the men and the women got 80 percent right, suggesting identical ability levels. He then tested the students again and asked them, after each question, to report their confidence in their answer. Just having to think about whether they felt certain of their answer changed their ability to do well. The women’s scores dipped to 75 percent, while the men’s jumped to 93. One little nudge asking women how sure they are about something rattles their world, while the same gesture reminds men that they’re terrific.
Finally, Estes decided to attempt a direct confidence boost. He told some members of the group, completely at random, that they had done very well on the previous test. On the next test they took, those men and women improved their scores dramatically. It was a clear measure of how confidence can be self-perpetuating.
These results could not be more relevant to understanding the confidence gap, and figuring out how to close it. What doomed the women in Estes’s lab was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice they made not to try.
The advice implicit in such findings is hardly unfamiliar: to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. And yet, there is something very powerful about this prescription, aligning as it does with everything research tells us about the sources of female reticence.
Almost daily, new evidence emerges of just how much our brains can change over the course of our lives, in response to shifting thought patterns and behavior. If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone. What the neuroscientists call plasticity, we call hope.
The newest students are transforming the way schools serve and educate them, including sending presidents and deans to Instagram and Twitter.
By Laura Pappano
They are, of course, super connected. But on their terms. Which is why college-bound iGens (Gen Zers, if you prefer) present a challenge to the grown-ups on campus eager to reach and teach them.
Consider orientation season. Katie Sermersheim, dean of students at Purdue University, has a mother lode of information and resources to share (including wellness initiatives and a new mindfulness room). But getting iGen’s attention?
“It can be frustrating slash extra challenging to figure out how to get the word out, whatever that word is,” Ms. Sermersheim said. “I do get discouraged.”
A generation that rarely reads books or emails, breathes through social media, feels isolated and stressed but is crazy driven and wants to solve the world’s problems (not just volunteer) is now on campus. Born from 1995 to 2012, its members are the most ethnically diverse generation in history, said Jean M. Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University.
They began arriving at colleges a few years ago, and now they are exerting their presence. They are driving shifts, subtle and not, in how colleges serve, guide and educate them, sending presidents and deans to Instagram and Twitter.
They are forcing course makeovers, spurring increased investments in mental health — from more counselors and wellness messages to campaigns drawing students to nature (hug a tree, take a break to look at insects) — and pushing academics to be more hands-on and job-relevant.
They are a frugal but ambitious lot, less excited by climbing walls and en suite kitchens than by career development.
Most critically, they expect to be treated as individuals. Students raised amid the tailored analytics of online retailers or college recruiters presume that anything put in front of them is customized for them, said Thomas C. Golden of Capture Higher Ed, a Lexington, Ky., data firm. He sees group designations evolving into “segments of one.”
Students want to navigate campus life, getting food or help, when it is convenient for them. And, yes, on their mobile devices or phones. “It’s not really technology to them,” said Cory Tressler, associate director of learning programs at Ohio State University, noting that the iPhone came out when most were in grade school.
It is why Ohio State this year, rather than battle device use, issued iPads to 11,000 incoming students. The school designated 42 fall courses “iPad required” (21 more will be added in the spring) and is building an app that in addition to maps and bus routes has a course planner, grades, schedules and a Get Involved feature displaying student organizations.
In the works is more customization, so when students open the app it knows which campus they are enrolled at, their major and which student groups they belong to.
Speaking to students on their terms just makes sense, said Nicole Kraft, a journalism professor at Ohio State who takes attendance via Twitter (she has separate hashtags for each of her three courses). She posts assignments on Slack, an app used in many workplaces. And she holds office hours at 10 p.m. via the video conference site Zoom, “because that is when they have questions.”
Dr. Kraft does not use email for class, except to teach students how to write a “proper” one. “That is a skill they need to have,” she said.
While these students are called “digital natives,” they still must be taught how to use devices and apps for academic purposes, Dr. Kraft said. She’s had students not know that they could use Microsoft Word on an iPad. “We make a lot of assumptions about what they know how to do.”
Campuses also have been slow to recognize that this age group is not millennials, version 2.0.
“IGen has a different flavor,” said Dr. Twenge of San Diego State University and author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”
It is tricky to define a large part of the population. But Dr. Twenge said big data sets revealed broad psychological patterns shared by those coming of age amid defining social, cultural and economic events.
The difference between growing up in the prosperous 1990s versus seeing family members lose jobs and homes during the 2008 recession alters one’s perspective, she said. It is why iGens are so focused on debt and insist that they get skills and experiences that will lead to a career.
The prevalence of school shootings and domestic terrorism has also shaped them.
“This generation defies the stereotypes of young adults,” in terms of risk-taking, Dr. Twenge said. They are “more receptive to messages around safety” and less eager to get driver’s licenses, and they come to college “with much less experience with sex and alcohol.”
They are also more cautious when it comes to academics, fear failure and have learning preferences distinct from millennials, said Corey Seemiller, professor at Wright State University and co-author of “Generation Z Goes to College,” who queried 1,200 students on 50 campuses.
“They do not like to learn in groups,” favor videos over static content and like to think about information, then be walked through it to be certain they have it right.
“They want a model” and then to practice, said Dr. Seemiller, who posts samples when assigning a paper. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s look through them and see what works.’” Having grown up with public successes and failures online, she said, students are hungry to have a big impact, yet “worry they will not live up to that expectation.”
And despite their digital obsession, Dr. Seemiller’s research shows this generation favors visual, face-to-face communication over texting. They are not always good at live social interaction, but they crave it. “They want authenticity and transparency,” she said. “They like the idea of human beings being behind things.”
As a generation that “has been sold a lot of stuff,” said Dr. Seemiller, iGens are shrewd consumers of the tone and quality of communication. That’s pushing colleges to focus not only on what they say, but also how they say it.
Which is what orientation leaders and staffers in Princeton’s office of the dean of undergraduate students — known on social media as ODUS — have tried to master in the way they welcome the class of 2022.
A brainstorming session in March generated what became a Princetified cover of Taylor Swift’s “22,” a video with orientation leaders and ODUS staff members as extras, a cappella groups singing the score and Nicolas Chae, a sophomore, directing.
Cody Babineaux, an incoming freshman from Lafayette, La., whose video of his acceptance to Princeton has 4.6 million Twitter views, appreciated it, especially the Harvard shirt sniffed and tossed out in the first 20 seconds. “It was hilarious,” he said. “It didn’t try too hard.”
Getting student attention and keeping it matters to administrators trying to build excitement for campus events, but also in prodding students about housing contracts and honor codes. “We are an office that enforces university standards. We can’t be firing off,” said Thomas Dunne, deputy dean of undergraduate students. “But you have to be animated and human-sounding. Our voice is very personal.”
ODUS has become an active presence on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter with a vibe that winks, pokes, weaves in memes and slang terms like BAE (before anyone else) and on fleek (flawlessly styled), and applies hashtags with wit (a free ice cream for dropping by the ODUS office with dance moves worthy of Dean Dunne? #GetServed, #GameOfCones).
Mr. Dunne, whose Facebook page began as a student prank without his knowledge more than a decade ago, leans on staff members who include 20-somethings. One, Ian Deas, who favors Snapchat, identifies student “influencers,” following them on Facebook and Instagram.
In posts, he looks for “those trendy phrases that help us stay in the conversation.” When ODUS staff members respond to student posts, it amplifies their reach. “When we are being interactive, our stuff pops up in other people’s feeds” and drives curiosity about “who is behind the voice.”
Being social on social media attracts students who might tune out official communication. Mr. Babineaux said he and his friends noted when college posts sounded “goofy” or “like your grandfather trying to say swag.”
He also notices that his generation is criticized “because we are always on our phones,” which gets interpreted as being disconnected. In fact, he said, “we just have more connection with everyone all the time.”
It is also how students like Mr. Babineaux learn and get information.
“Social media has helped me get a lot more prepared for Princeton,” he said, adding that he has scrolled through old posts of campus (“I have never seen snow”) and watched videos, including of graduation. “I thought, ‘That will be on my Instagram page in four years.’”
Teens build relationships with friends through FaceTime and group chats. They nurture friendships with compliments on Instagram and Snapchat. They stay in touch with friends and family overseas with messages on WhatsApp. Social media is just how they socialize these days.
Students are spending an average nine hours each day on their screens, according to Common Sense Media, and social media has become one of the greatest influences on our children’s happiness, health, safety, and future success, according to other reports. Many of the parents and school leaders I’ve talked with initially just wanted social media to go away, but now that it’s here to stay, some adults and students are beginning to see it as a powerful and positive tool.
According to The Social Institute’s 2017–2018 Social Media Survey with nearly 4,450 students from independent schools, more than 80 percent of fifth- through 12th-graders said they believed that social media can have a positive impact on their world, whether that means their school or local community, state, or country.
This is why many independent schools are adopting a proactive, growth-minded, and sustainable approach that empowers students, parents, and educators to positively navigate social media. They strengthen their reputations, protect their privacy, follow positive role models, and more. This new approach better aligns with a school’s mission and values, supporting students’ health and wellness. The future of social media is bright, and it’s one where we empower and equip, rather than scare and restrict.
The Current Landscape for Schools
Since social media really took off 10 years ago, few institutions or parents have found a relevant, effective solution to helping kids navigate the world of posts, texts, and selfies. Why? There are three current issues at play: what schools teach about social media, who teaches it, and how it’s taught.
Schools continue to approach social media education as a matter of digital citizenship. Common Sense Media defines digital citizenship as the ability to “think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly in our digital world.”
We all want students to have digital skills, but telling students to use “digital citizenship” when using technology is like telling them to use “proper navigation” when driving a car. In the world of social media, relevance is everything, and “digital citizenship” is simply not relevant.
Furthermore, most schools use a top-down approach in which adults teach students. Of course, this happens for nearly every school subject, why not social media? The problem again lies with relevance.
According to the 2017–2018 Social Media Survey, 100 percent of students said they believed they know more about social media than their parents or school faculty. How are schools and parents supposed to teach something teens believe they know better (and likely do)?
Lastly, digital citizenship is often taught by adults strictly through “don’ts.” Don’t post this, and don’t share that. Don’t join that app, and don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. However, imagine if a coach only taught how not to throw a ball or how not to shoot it. Players wouldn’t know what to do. Students are not being taught what to do on social media.
This relevance-lacking, top-down, don’ts-driven approach is failing our students. Students are progressing through school unequipped to navigate life with a phone in their hand. They are overwhelmed by the pressures of cyberbullying. They are being rejected by colleges because of racist Facebook posts. Sleep deprivation among teens is rising because they can’t put their phones away at night. Nude photos of teens are shared around school. Tweens are committing suicide because they’re cyberbullied.
As long as students feel like they are being lectured, they will tune out. They will fall victim to the same landmines, and this negative cycle will continue, potentially tarnishing the reputation of both students
The Future of Social Media Education
We must refine social media education with a positive and proactive approach. The Social Institute works with several independent schools to implement such an approach and empowers students, parents, and faculty. We are halfway through a three-year strategic partnership with Ravenscroft School (NC) and have learned four best practices.
Integrate the curriculum. Rather than putting “digital citizenship” in a corner, Ravenscroft integrates social media life skills into its school’s advisory program, which encourages character development, health, and wellness. The school weaves lessons throughout its advisory program, which promotes “leading self,”
“leading with others,” and “changing your world.”
Students learn to have their social media profiles represent their true self and character. They learn to use empathy when engaging with and posting about others. And because social media is a student’s microphone to the world, sixth- through 12th-grade students learn how to use platforms to spark positive change. The program resonates with students because it supports their belief that there is no distinction between your “real self”
and “digital self.” It’s simply “you” and your ability to have high integrity and character—with or without a device in your hand.
Use a bottom-up approach. Rather than using a top-down approach, in which students are lectured by adults, Ravenscroft students co-lead the program. Student focus groups help develop materials and lesson plans, ensuring they are most relevant to the apps and behaviors students witness online. It’s effective because younger students admire the older student-leaders, and student-leaders help set the standard around social media use at the school. With a train-the-trainer approach, Ravenscroft’s 11th- and 12th-grade student-leaders are now learning to teach sixth- through 10th-grade students, parents, and faculty about positive social media use. It’s a team approach.
Focus on the do’s. Rather than harping “don’t do this” and “don’t share that,” we have found that reinforcing the actions to take allows students to strengthen their reputations, better handle the challenges, and change their worlds for the better. In Ravenscroft’s #WinAtSocial program, students learn seven Social Standards—including “protect your privacy like you’re famous,” and “use your mic for good.” (See “Gold Standards,” below.)
Assemble a cross-departmental team. The power of social media impacts nearly every administrative department. Susan Perry, Ravenscroft’s assistant head of school for student affairs, says, “Our students and parents have longed for a sustained, systemic message about how to connect conversations and educate about technology and social media. Our work with our faculty, students, and parents allows us to have an ongoing, supportive, and educational dialogue about how to leverage social media for respectful outcomes. We feel our commitment to community health must include such a systemic educational approach to understanding the potential positive impact social media can bring.”
How We Get There
As one of the most powerful influences on a child being happy, healthy, and successful, social media needs to be a priority. Schools have the opportunity to get ahead of the game. It starts with administration teams determining why it’s a priority and championing a holistic approach to educating students, parents, and faculty. The upfront work is hard, but the impact is remarkable—these are lifelong skills that students require.
Once schools make the commitment, there will be less helicoptering and more huddling. Less fear and more trust. Less bullying and more empathy. Fewer fire drills and more high-fives. Less negativity and more positivity. The future of social media education is bright, and it’s one where students are empowered and hold one another to high standards, whether online or off. ▪
How does your school teach students, parents, and faculty about social media? Tell us on Twitter at @NAISnetwork.
Laura Tierney is founder and president of The Social Institute, which empowers students, parents, and educators to use social media positively. She works with a number of independent schools as well as organizations like the U.S. Olympic Committee.
In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.
Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.
“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.
The challenge is what to do about it.
After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.
Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.
Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.
Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.
Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.
“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”
Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.
When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.
At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.
Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.
“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”
She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”
In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.
Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.
Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.
“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”
But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”
Public speaking is so stressful for so many people that it is routinely used as a stress manipulation in psychological studies. Tell undergrads they have 10 minutes to prepare a speech that will be evaluated by experts, and their levels of the stress hormone cortisol shoot through the roof.
Yet success in many roles requires speaking in public. In addition to presenting in my classes, I typically give a talk per week in front of groups. People ask me if speaking gets me nervous. It does not. And I give a lot of credit to my fascination with stand-up comedy. While I’m not a comedian myself, I’ve been a fan of comedians and their process for a long time, and I think there are three lessons that anyone can learn from them about public speaking.
It’s OK to Die
Why exactly is public speaking so nerve-wracking? One main reason: It’s a social risk. If you give a bad talk (or trip on your way up to the stage), you worry that the stench of that talk will stick to you for the rest of your life. Your reputation will suffer, and that can have lasting consequences.
Death is a frequent metaphor for comedians. When they have a great set, they killed. When they have a terrible set, they died on stage. Every comedian I have ever met or read about has died. Often. And they have lived to tell the tale. And many have gone on to have successful careers.
You are much more concerned about the consequences of a bad talk than anyone else is. A lot of research suggests that we have an egocentric bias about the things we do. Other people are simply much less concerned about you (and notice a lot less about you) than you think they are. Your audience will forget most of your talk soon after you give it (whether it is good or bad).
Once you realize that the downside of speaking is really not so bad, it gets easier to give talks. Also, stress decreases your working memory capacity — the amount of memory you have available for critical thinking in the moment. When you’re less stressed about speaking, you also think more clearly, which helps you to be more spontaneous and to answer questions more effectively.
Work It Out on the Road
Once you start giving public talks, you’re likely to speak on the same topic several times. In this way, you’re like a comedian working out a new bit. Comedians will come up with something and practice it, and then try it in front of an audience. In subsequent performances, they emphasize and embellish the parts that are working and lose the parts that aren’t. Once they have performed a routine several times, they have a pretty good sense of where the reactions are going to be.
You can do the same. Take advantage of opportunities to give several talks on the same topic. Watch the audience closely. You can tell when they are paying attention and when they are mentally somewhere else. And try to get some feedback from the people who hear you to figure out what resonated.
Then take some notes — don’t rely on your memory. Highlight the elements that people seem to like. Reorganize sections of the talk that sent the audience to their cell phones or daydreaming of the next coffee break. Your talks should get better over time not only because you are more practiced at giving them but also because you have edited them based on feedback.
Remember the Role of Three
In my book Smart Thinking, I talk about the observation that people remember roughly three things about any experience they have. This idea has a direct parallel in comedy. Jeff Loewenstein and Chip Heath have written about what they call the repetition-break plot structure, which is common in jokes and stories. Essentially, you tell a story, then repeat it, and then on the third pass you change it in a memorable way. This is the structure of many jokes that start with “Three guys walk into a bar…”
This structure works well for two reasons. First, it’s easy to remember three elements. Second, the comparison of the first element with the second sets up a schema that creates a set of expectations. When you break that expectation the third time through, you create something memorable, surprising, and (sometimes) humorous.
When preparing your talks, figure out the three things you want people to remember, and focus on them. Find ways to make comparisons among the elements you are presenting to help your audience generate expectations. Resist the temptation to add more content. Less is more.
And one bonus lesson here. Comedians often use callbacks to generate humor. In a callback, they refer to a joke they told previously in the set. Callbacks can be funny, but they also enhance memory.
Your brain wants to forget most of what it encounters. (After all, you engage with a lot of different things each day. You don’t necessarily need to remember everything.) One way your brain decides what to remember is to judge whether you will need that information later. A good indication that you will need information in the future is that you’ve already had to remember it at least once after your first encounter with it. By calling back throughout the talk to a point you made earlier, you are giving your audience cues about the information they should remember later.
If you treat talks like stand-up comedy, you won’t instantly be a stress-free presenter. But you’re likely to dread it less and less as you realize that you got through another talk without the world ending. And hopefully, one day, you might even realize that you’re more excited than worried about the prospect of getting up in front of a group.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.