Saturday, April 19, 2014

The self-delusion gap

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, accomplished TV journalists and book authors, have written a lengthy feature for The Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap.” In it, they argue that highly competent women do not lean in because that lack confidence. As they worked on the article, Katty at one point shared her long-hel suspicion “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 laughed, but it turned out she harbored excessive modesty, too. And they offer similar examples of other highly successful women in different areas who suffer from a mild form of impostor syndrome. No doubt, Kay and Shipman will be criticized for blaming women for their mostly subordinate position in the corporate world. I see, however, a bigger problem with their theory – the extent to which they take the exaggerated, chest-pounding self-assurance and will to power of Alpha, and even Beta, males as the norm; and think aspiring women should ape them in always charging upward and taking big risks.

How about making the corporate world less of a workaholic, winner-take-most jungle favoring quasi-psychopathic tendencies? Making it possible for both men and women to strike some sane balance between upper level managerial work which does not require total self-investment and non-work? Since this is so obviously not in the cards, apparently the only winning strategy for the female corporate warriors is to claw her way up and up and up… And for that she does need a lot of mental and physical toughness – and, yes, unshakable confidence. 

There is only one problem with this scenario. Unless part of the upper-echelon corporate workforce for various reasons recoil from chronic can-do optimism, risk-taking, and aggressive socioeconomic climbing – because they do not overestimate sufficiently their own potential (a judgment error clearly associated with the achievement of higher social status and overall “success”), lack a suitably thick skin or mettle, have other priorities in life, etc. – the whole house of cards will likely collapse. It almost happened a few years ago, and next time may be for real. As Adam Smith once recognized, the market economy cannot be sustained without a degree of self-restraint, moderation, compassion, and shared desire for high moral standing and social recognition.

There may also be another problem with much of the research Kay and Shipman so faithfully cite. Unlike them, I don’t lack the confidence to draw some more far-fetched inferences. I was going to say “Thank God I am male,” but I have a sense that the “confidence gap” the two bright women describe may not be just sex/gender related. Perhaps overconfidence is more closely associated not with masculinity, but with something more specific – low sensitivity to distress signals in the brain, and a strong drive for social dominance. These neurosomatic tendencies happen to be more typical of men, but there are also quite a few men who fall short on these dimensions. Unless they can hide behind a computer monitor and spend endless hours coding, such non-typical males may also face inauspicious career prospects. All doors will fly open, however, before well-qualified women approximating the typical male patterns of neurosomatic wiring and activation, and propelled by similar social drives.

By the way, Kay and Shipman mentions in passing – and with a strange twist – the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” They say the two now famous psychologists established that “the less competent people are, the more they overestimate their abilities—which makes a strange kind of sense.” What kind of sense exactly does this make? The more inept you are, the more self-delusional you will be, and the quicker this will propel you to much deserved social “success”? And this is the order of the day ambitious women should embrace – as their male counterparts have long done – and act accordingly? In fact, if the phenomenon Dunning and Kruger identified is to be taken seriously, then the problem of achieving stronger self-confidence – and the career advancement Kay and Shipman associate with it – would have an easy solution for anyone, regardless of sex/gender. Just avoid becoming too competent in any field, or developing the kind of broader mental sophistication which once made Socrates doubt his own qualifications as a philosopher. Then, sooner or later, you will lord it over the more competent. Or maybe I am missing something here?

P.S. Kay and Shipman have another interesting lament. They say too many young women give up sports, and practicing sports is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes later in life. I think this divergence may in fact bear greater significance than they realize. Many more boys and young men suffer concussions as they play sports, and this is a variable which in itself could produce a statistically significant discrepancy in self-confidence. And this is a gap women will likely never close, even with the increased popularity of women's soccer and other formerly male sports.