Are You a Genius? Depends on Your Gender
A new study from Cornell University shows how metaphors influence our ability to be impressed by genius and uncovers a gender hook – it seems we prefer to conceive of male genius as an exciting idea explosion, and female genius as a long, hard labor of hard work.
Genius is a hard concept to pin down. That’s why we have to talk about it using metaphors, like “light-bulb moments” and “the fruit of seeds planted in youth.” Our metaphors are a bit wonky, but it turns out they imply a whole lot about the validity of genius ideas – and the gender of the person having them.
That’s what Cornell University researchers Kristen Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero just learned from three experiments. They manipulated acts of genius like Alan Turing’s creation of his Enigma machine and Hedy Lamarr’s discovery of spread spectrum radio waves to be either light bulb moments or the fruit of seeds of effort. The researchers distributed the randomized write-ups to participants and surveyed them about their perception of genius. The results, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, were surprising.
First, the researchers wrote two descriptions of Alan Turing’s creation of the code-breaking Enigma machine – one as a “light bulb” moment of sudden inspiration, and one as the “fruit” of effort over time. They randomly assigned those descriptions to 395 participants and asked them how that moment of genius defined Turing. The light-bulb metaphor led participants to think of Turing’s invention as exceptional. The seed metaphor did not:
Credit: Social Psychological and Personality Science
“This effect emerged even though all participants read about the same idea,” the authors emphasize in the study. “The seed metaphor may rely more on existing beliefs about effort in order to frame an idea as exceptional, whereas the light bulb metaphor may be so frequently evoked and familiar that it exerts influence regardless of more stable beliefs about whether ideas originate from inspiration.” That means that the light bulb comparison made Turing’s invention seem unattainable for anyone except a genius -- especially normal, hard-working people (which, given that Turing actually created the Enigma machine through long, hard work, is problematic).
Next, the researchers assigned 393 participants general statements about what the average man or woman was best at. After calculating the survey, they found that “women were more likely than men to endorse women as superior idea creators,” especially if those female participants had positive exposure to the seed metaphor. Then they surveyed 426 participants about the creation of spread spectrum radio waves, manipulating the gender of the inventor (Hedy Lamarr vs George Antheil, both of whom created the technology) and the light bulb vs seed comparison. They found that people were less likely to consider the invention an act of genius if Lamarr had created it in a light bulb moment – yet, were more receptive to it being the fruit of a seed. Participants were more likely to consider Antheil a genius when the invention was described as a light-bulb moment.
Credit: Social Psychological and Personality Science
Overall, the researchers found that “the seed metaphor is more compatible with and inclusive of women’s accomplishments… [and] possibly incongruent with the stereotype of male inventors.” They posit that difference as a semantic one in the study: “Language connecting innovation to stereotypically feminine traits like nurturance may bring to mind pathways to success and genius that challenge typical understandings of genius as innate.”
That’s particularly troubling given how women view their own intelligence, according to the study authors. “Women in male-dominated fields are more likely to misinterpret their effort as a sign that they do not belong and, thus, benefit in particular from portrayals of effort as normal for success.”
Compared to common findings on genius, that’s a striking thought. “Although certain individuals may be widely accepted as geniuses, there cannot be a consensus on exactly who is, and is not, a genius,” explains Psychology Today. One thing we know for certain is that genius is more about analytical reasoning skills and pattern thinking than light-bulb moments. And genius isn’t limited to only one kind of intelligence, either, as developmental psychologist Howard Gardner told us:
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
- Bad outcomes get criticized as evidence of bad decisions, but that's not necessarily so.
- Here, poker pro Annie Duke desribes a simple thought experiment that separates decisions from outcomes.
- It is quite possible to make a very good decision that, due to external factors, results in a bad outcome.
Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold '’Em
Lauren Miranda sent a nude selfie to a boyfriend years ago. Somehow one of her students discovered it.
- Math teacher Lauren Miranda was fired from her Long Island school when a topless selfie surfaced.
- Miranda had only shared the photo with her ex-boyfriend, who is also a teacher in the school district.
- She's suing the school for $3 million as well as getting her job back, citing gender discrimination.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.