Did a New Study Find That Men Think They’re Smarter Than Women? Debunking Sexism Clickbait

Benjamin Radford

If you spent time on social media a few weeks ago, you may have seen headlines about a recent study at Arizona State University that found, among other things, that college men think they’re smarter than women.

I first noticed it when an NBC News.com story titled “Men Think They’re Smarter Than Women in College Experiment” was shared on a friend’s social media page. And it wasn’t just NBC News; an April 8, 2018, Newshub.com headline by Dan Slatherley read, “Men Think They’re Brainer Than Women, Even When They’re Not—Study”; another, on StartsAtSixty.com, read “Men Think They’re Smarter Than Women, Even When They’re Not: Study,” and below that a photo caption read, “A study has confirmed that men think they’re smarter than women.”

An ABC Radio show on April 6 hosted by Patricia Karvelas was titled “Why Men Think They Are Smarter Than Women.” The British Evening Standard stated that “Men in Science Think They Are More Intelligent Than Female Counterparts, Study Reveals,” going on to explain that “Men in science overestimate their own intelligence and underestimate the intelligence of their female peers, a new study revealed.” And so on; you get the idea.

Accurate or not, it was a typical clickbait article whose headline was carefully crafted to elicit “conversation,” annoyance, exasperation, and—perchance—outrage. The commenters on these posts and stories, in social media-conditioned Pavlovian responses, played their roles by offering personal anecdotes about boorish men they’d encountered who had underestimated women’s intelligence in academic and work settings.

Citing published research—instead of, for example, the ever-present personal opinion—is of course helpful when engaging in “the national conversation” about such topics. But only if that study is correct and the takeaway is accurate; otherwise it’s merely misinformation given legs by confirmation bias. It was clear from the comments on the posts I saw that none of posters had read past the headline, which wouldn’t (necessarily) have been a problem—assuming it was accurate.

A Closer Look

I didn’t necessarily doubt the finding—it’s certainly plausible that a study found college men think they’re smarter than their female peers—but having seen the findings in peer-reviewed journals often get mangled and twisted in the dumbing-down journey from journal study to press release to news item to social media post, I was curious to read about the conditions under which the findings emerged.

It’s Skepticism and Science Literacy 101. If a study finds that substance X causes cancer, the significance of the research invariably lies in the details: What substance and how much of it? What type of cancer, and in what animals? If an artificial sweetener is found to cause cancer, are we talking humans drinking the equivalent of two diet sodas a day, or are we talking about a rat being injected with the equivalent of a hundred diet sodas a day? Are the rats especially prone to cancers with or without exposure to substance X? And so on. These are not nit-picky pedantic questions but instead central to a valid research design and therefore valid findings. Because of the perils of confirmation bias, it’s important to closely examine the methods and results in all studies a person cites or references, not just those our gut tells us to challenge.

I read the NBC News article (it took about 90 seconds) and found no reference at all to any research findings indicating that men think they’re smarter than women. Wondering if the relevant information in the headline had somehow been dropped from the article, I then clicked on the link to the research upon which the news article was based. The study, “Who perceives they are smarter? Exploring the influence of student characteristics on student academic self-concept in physiology,” was conducted by Katelyn M. Cooper, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell of Arizona State University (ASU), and published in the June 2018 issue of Advances in Physiology Education (Volume 42, Issue 2). It is open access and can be read in full here.

The study involved 244 students in an upper-level physiology course who were given questionnaires about their self-concept as students. Variables studied included gender, English proficiency, race/ethnicity, anxiety level, and transfer status (i.e., if they were new to the campus from a two-year program). “Using a survey, students self-reported how smart they perceived themselves to be in the context of physiology relative to the whole class and relative to their groupmate, the student with whom they worked most closely in class.”

I read through the study (beginning with the Abstract, then the Conclusions, then the Results, and then the rest) and was still unable to find any conclusion suggesting that overall the men in the study believed they were smarter than the women. The closest I could find was a result that read, “When they asked students to ask if they were smarter than their classmates, the average male student thinks he is smarter than 66 percent of the class, while the average female student thinks she is smarter than 54 percent of the class.” While the news headlines generalized the results to overall intelligence, the students were asked how smart they thought they were compared only to their classmates (not men and women in general), and specifically on the subject of physiology (not general intelligence).

Thus the headline could just as easily have read, “Women Think They’re Smarter Than Men in College Experiment.” Both men and women said they were smarter than their classmates (of both genders); there is an 11 percent difference (66 percent for men versus 54 percent for women, all of whom have a 3.3 GPA). That is a significant difference but doesn’t logically lead to the headlines. “Most” (which is implied by grouping the participants by gender) is greater than 50 percent, which in this case applies to both genders (see Figure 1, below).

Figure 1

When I pointed this out, my friend replied, “Haven’t had a chance to read the study but I assumed the headline was in regards to this result: ‘The students worked in groups and as partners and when asked to rate themselves compared to their closest workmate, the men thought they’d be smarter than 61 percent of their colleagues. Women put the number closer to 33 percent.’”

I had seen that as well, but there was no indication that the “closest workmate” was of a different gender; in fact the study said: “Using a survey, students self-reported how smart they perceived themselves to be in the context of physiology relative to the whole class and relative to their groupmate, the student with whom they worked most closely in class.” Without an indication of the gender that each gender thinks they’re smarter than, we can’t tell whether the headline “Men Think They’re Smarter Than Women” is accurate. An accurate headline might be something like “More Men Than Women Think They’re Smarter Than Their Colleagues,” which is not the same measure. The apparent disparity in self-confidence between the genders found in the study is concerning, but irrelevant to the headlines the study spawned: the study says nothing about men thinking they’re smarter than women.

The authors acknowledge an important potential bias in the research design: “reporting on how smart one feels compared with another person may cause students to answer the question in a socially desirable way.” Thus the findings could be attributable not to internalized doubts about their knowledge of academic physiology but instead some people not wanting to appear arrogant or superior to their classmates. This same issue has plagued previous studies involving self-reporting of appearance, for example when women avoid telling researchers they consider themselves “beautiful.” As Autumn Whitefield-Madrano wrote in her book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, “We [women] learn that women aren’t supposed to refer to themselves with words bolder than reasonably attractive” lest they be seen as vain (p. 58). For more see Whitefield-Madrano’s appearance on the Point of Inquiry podcast, interviewed by Lindsay Beyerstein in 2016.

This bias may help explain the disparity between studies that find that many women don’t call themselves beautiful, yet 90 peercent nonetheless report that they are satisfied with their physical attractiveness and beauty (see, for example, the Dove campaign’s The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report).

In the end my friend conceded that the headline was incorrect and didn’t accurately reflect what the study found. I noticed that the dozen or more comments on the thread had all clearly been based on, and responding to, the faulty headline instead of any result that had appeared in the study.

Media and Science Literacy in the Age of Clicks

So what happened? How did dozens of headlines from reputable news organizations from around the world get it wrong? I’m not suggesting that NBC News or the other news outlets have a hidden agenda in trying to portray men and women as more adversaries than allies. As Hanlon’s Razor advises, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” (or, more charitably, incompetence).

In the news media, headlines are often incomplete and/or grossly oversimplified at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. It’s an inevitable editorial necessity when trying to convey the gist of a potentially complex story in only a few words. (Note, however, that the error wasn’t limited to the headlines; several of the news stories led with factually wrong introductory statements.) There’s also a failure of science literacy as well, with many stories written directly from a press release by journalists who didn’t read (or read but didn’t understand) the study. It is encouraging to note that the mistake was not universal; other news outlets offered more accurate and nuanced headlines about the Cooper, Krieg, and Brownell ASU study.

Aside from the poor journalism and misreporting of scientific findings, the more interesting issue is how the headlines were crafted to pit men and women against each other, emphasizing gender oppression. Saying that “Science shows” or “Study finds” that men think they’re smarter than women not only is factually false but counterproductive and divisive. As social psychologist and CFI fellow Carol Tavris notes in her pioneering book The Mismeasure of Woman, men and women are far more alike than different. “By regarding masculinity and femininity as polar opposites, with one side usually better than the other, we forget that, in practice, most of us ‘do’ both … . Many people persist in believing that men and women differ in important qualities, in spite of innumerable studies that have failed to pin these qualities down and keep them there … . But people love sex differences … they love to notice and identify ways in which the sexes seem to differ psychologically, and then to complain or laugh about what ‘women’ are or what ‘men’ do” (p. 293, 288).

The problem is partly sloppy journalism, but it’s also the desire for clicks. Web content editors know that provocative headlines like “Men Think They’re Smarter Than Women” are going to be shared, discussed, and debated in a way that less sensational (and more accurate) ones won’t. Media literacy has many facets, and in the digital age the lessons are more important than ever. Basic guidelines such as reading past the headline, consulting primary sources, and resisting the temptation to share dubious stories on social media often go out the window when stories fit our preconceived assumptions and biases. We all—and especially skeptics—like to think we’re too smart or media savvy to be misled, but as Mark Twain (is said to have) said, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—they are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. As Faye Flam noted in a Bloomberg piece about fake news, “False stories are easier than ever to generate and spread. In decades past … people trusted established newspapers, magazines and TV news programs. But trust in the mainstream media has declined massively over the past 20 years, while a majority of Americans now get news from Facebook.” Flam does not mean Facebook itself, of course, but instead people on Facebook—people like you and I.

Yes, the news media help spread myriad “fake news” stories—but they are gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story (especially if it seems crafted to encourage social outrage) before checking the facts. It’s too easy, especially in the heat of righteous indignation, to share and spread misinformation. If news organizations can’t or won’t take responsibility, we as netizens can take that power by refusing to be a conduit for these and other varieties of fake news—or, better yet, fact checking it. We often spread these stories on social media to let others know how awful or outrageous we find it, but sharing misinformation can add to the problem instead of helping.

Men and women need to work together to address social problems including sexism and misogyny, and wrongly telling women that new research found more proof that men think women are intellectually inferior isn’t doing anyone any favors. There are enough legitimate, actual findings about substantive sexism in America that journalists don’t need to manufacture new ones to drive traffic for ad revenue.

One goal of the ASU study was to help find ways to improve self-confidence in female science students. Perhaps one way to encourage women in the sciences is to not misrepresent their research in news and social media and to not give them the notion that science has proven they face a wall of male peers inherently inclined to dismiss them.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).