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News U. News coverage from Reuters. Environment an hour ago U. Politics 3 hours ago Top U. Business News 4 hours ago U. Politics 5 hours ago U. For decades—for centuries, actually—differences real or imagined were used against us. 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. 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. 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.
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. On days when traders began with higher levels of testosterone, they made riskier trades.
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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. 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. School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy.
They have longer attention spans, more-advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, and greater social adeptness. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly. 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.
Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. Boys also benefit from the lessons they learn—or, more to the point, the lessons they teach one another—during recess and after school. 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. 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.
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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. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating. Consider the following tale of two employees.
Our friend often found herself shooting down his ideas, correcting his misperceptions, and sending him off for further research. 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. 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.
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Which is why any discussion of this subject requires a major caveat. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. 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 participants, both men and women, to imagine themselves as either the most senior figure or the most junior figure in a meeting.
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 For now, though, for Rebecca and for most women, coming across as too confident is not the problem.
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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. 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. 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. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role.
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. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure.