The helplessness of bright girls

“She found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.” ~Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD

I’ve long been fascinated by the differences between the ways that men and women experience, interact with, and perceive the world. While I do recognize that these kinds of studies are really the studies of averages—of stereotypes—and do adequately represent each individual man or woman, I am still intrigued by studies of differences, particularly when the differences are shown to be a result of early culturalization influences.

The quote above came from an article entitled The Trouble with Bright Girls from The Huffington Post that talks about a study done in the 1980s on fifth-grade students. As the quote above indicates, the brighter a girl was, the more likely she was to give up when given particularly challenging new information to learn. The opposite effect was seen in boys.

The researchers determined that the reason for this seemingly odd reaction from the bright girls was that the messages of praise they had received over the years for their good schoolwork had led them to believe that their brightness was an innate trait that they had no influence over. So if new material seemed particularly difficult, they would lose confidence and assume they were simply incapable of learning it.

On the other hand, boys were more likely to receive messages encouraging them to work harder or put in more effort, so they assumed the key to learning more challenging information was to work harder, and this is precisely what they would do. Without that internalized belief that their abilities were innate, and therefore limited, they defaulted to working harder.

As one who would have been considered a “bright girl” at that age, I am particularly fascinated by the findings of this study. While I do have examples from my own life where I have been able to learn new things that I initially found challenging through harder work, I can think of many more examples where I am quick to give up if I cannot grasp a new concept or area right away. If I really think about it, I do tend to lean more toward believing that my innate abilities are fixed and unchangeable rather than believing that they can always be expanded with enough hard work.

On the one hand, there are places in my life where acknowledging that a particular skill or ability is not a strength can save me a lot of time and effort by allowing me to delegate (or outsource) those activities to others who are good at them. I don’t need to be good at everything even if I could learn it with enough time and effort. By delegating those things that are not my strengths or that I don’t enjoy, I allow myself more time to focus on the things that I am good at and that I am passionate about. At the end of the day, this is going to greatly enhance my productivity—and my happiness.

On the other hand, there are times when there is something that I may need to learn to do myself for whatever reason, and if I allow myself to give up on it just because I find it challenging, I am limiting my options. My self-defined incapability to learn something new becomes predictive because it keeps me from genuinely trying. My inner voices have defeated me before I’ve even started. I’ve seen many women, including myself (more times than I care to admit) fall into this self-limiting trap.

For me, the important realization in all this is that I can learn to do anything I want to do if I’m willing to put in the hard work to do it. I am not limited by some innate maximum level of talent or intellect that can never be expanded. Adjusting my thinking this way opens new doors for me. I may still decide that I don’t want to spend the time and effort needed to learn something new, but at least I’m choosing that rather than assuming I have no choice in the matter because I think I can’t learn it.

Frankly, I’m more often guilty of not delegating as often as I should, of feeling I need to do it all myself. I do need to work on that tendency, where appropriate, to ensure that I’m spending my time on the things that really matter the most. But I also want to make a conscious effort from now on to notice and reject self-limiting language when it comes to learning or doing something new.

“I don’t particularly wish to learn the intricacies of self-employment taxes, so I think I’ll hire an accountant” is a valid and rational decision that allows me to spend my time on the things I love. “I have to hire an accountant because I’m not capable of learning how to do self-employment taxes” is a self-limiting believe that prevents me from adequately exploring and considering all of my options. Even though I wind up hiring an accountant either way, the first decision comes from a place of strength and gives me greater confidence to be involved with the process to ensure that I am confident about the work being done. The latter is a decision from a place of weakness and limitation, and I am done with those.

I’d encourage you to read the full article and look at your own tendencies. How do you react to learning particularly challenging material?


4 thoughts on “The helplessness of bright girls

  1. I think they’ve really missed the boat here. I think the real issue here is about training girls out of competitiveness and dealing with conflict. We train girls to go for consensus, and often that means avoiding challenge, or of showing yourself to be more talented than others – so you hide your light under a bushel. Girls get more praise? Not in my experience – in class or elsewhere.

    In order to deal with a problem that arises, you HAVE to be comfortable with conflict. You have to be able to have the inner fire, the inner drive that says, ‘THIS is a challenge, THIS is resistance, I AM GOING TO DO THIS.’ We train that out of women early. What do we say to boys? ‘Try this?’ ‘Or how about this?’ ‘Isn’t this fun?’ ‘Come on, you can beat him!’ It’s not that we tell girls their capacity is fixed; it’s that we tell them ‘Nice girls don’t BEHAVE like that.’ There’s a lot of pressure to keep girls quiet. And because we train women for consensus, they often can’t take criticism or dissonance without feeling deeply threatened.

    To be honest, the worst problem solvers I have ever seen are the rigid, whatever gender they are – because they cannot step out of the box. Anyone, no matter what gender they are, if they are flexible, thoughtful, willing to step out of their frame of reference, is an amazing problem-solver.

    This isn’t about hard work – very little comes from just that. This is about being able to change how you’re looking at things and not feeling threatened by resistance – because you know you need it to grow.


    • Thanks for your comments, Irim. It sounds like your experience is very different than mine on this topic. I agree that girls are generally pressured not to be competitive, but I don’t find learning to be a competitive activity (for me). Demonstrating what I have learned through grades or assignments could be considered competitive, but not the actual experience of learning itself. (Again, speaking only for my personal experience.)

      My experience tracks much more closely with that of the article in The Huffington Post. While I didn’t necessary get much praise, the praise I did get was always a variation of “you did well because you are smart,” which sounds to me like some innate trait I have no influence over. I remember hearing boys praised for doing well because they worked hard or put in the effort to do a good job.

      For me, it’s that subtle mindset difference that has influenced my perception of what I am capable of learning. There are other places in my life where the desire not to appear competitive in an issue; this is not one of them.

      • I think we might be a bit at cross-purposes here: I think what I’m saying is that we don’t teach girls to ENGAGE with resistance – which I think is part of what gives rise to that idea that our capacity is innate and unchangeable, so girls don’t actually find out for themselves what they can and can’t do. Engaging with an obstacle is a form of conflict that gives rise to change and rise to change in awareness of capacity and whether that capacity is malleable or what it even looks like. I’m not talking about classic competitiveness with others.

        And I totally hear that we tell boys that they’re smart because they do and girls because they are – we do teach boys to go out in the world and try and we certainly tend to ‘contain’ girls by ‘you’re smart’. I’m trying to get at what’s underneath it, because I do think it runs deeper.


      • Dear Irim,

        I heard you on that the first time. All I am saying is that my experience is clearly different from yours. The explanation given in the original article was an eye-opener for me because it described my experience (then and now) in a way that explanations like yours do not. I agree that there are other areas where girls are raised differently than boys, but the kinds of things that you are raising have not impacted my experience with regards to learning and any self-perceived limitations I have around learning.

        For ME, it is not whether I was taught to engage with resistance or an obstacle that is the issue; it is the perception of innate limitation that prevents me from engaging. There are plenty of times when I struggled with learning something but believed it was within my innate ability when I had no problem engaging and working through it to eventually figure it out. On the other hand, the places where I believed I did not have the innate ability, I did not bother to engage.

        I am not arguing that my experience invalidates yours (or anyone else’s) if this explanation does not fit your experience. Then again, the fact that you think my experience is too shallow does not invalidate the fact that it is my experience. For ME (and I am truly speaking ONLY for me), this article was a much-needed insight that has allowed me to move forward on my journey by spotlighting a blind spot to me, and that was all that I was trying to share.

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