Blog Posts

09
Jul

The Science of Smart: How To Choose A Role Model Who Will Really Motivate You

In last week’s post we talked about how “there are particular kinds of relationships that are especially good at evoking our intelligence.” The kind of relationship we’ll talk about this week is the role model relationship: the situation in which we look up to, and learn from, someone else’s example.

If a role model relationship is to help you think and act more intelligently, you’ll have to choose the right person to emulate—and as is so often the case, science has some surprising and counter-intuitive insights to contribute here. The right role model may not be the brightest light in your field, but rather someone more humanly flawed.

Is second place better than first?

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, for example, Jerker Denrell of the University of Oxford and Chengwei Liu of the University of Warwick counsel us to model ourselves on solid, second-tier performers, not the flashy types who come in first. The researchers reported on the results of a game played in many rounds. Over time, the most skilled players came to inhabit a second tier of reliable competence. Those who succeeded spectacularly—who took their places in the first tier—were often not the most skilled, but rather were those who got some lucky breaks early on or took big risks that happened to pay off.

Emulating these top performers would probably lead to disappointment, since imitators would be unlikely to replicate their good fortune. Because luck and risk play a dominant role in extraordinary outcomes, Denrell and Liu write, “extreme success or failure are, at best, only weak signals of skill,” and top performers “should not be imitated or praised.” Better, they advise, to learn from individuals “with high, but not exceptional, performance”—those whose success can be attributed to solid skill and not to a rare lightning strike.

Modeling ourselves on the most accomplished individuals can have another drawback: it can actually make us less motivated. In an article published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, psychologists Diana E. Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa note that women in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are often labeled “unfeminine,” an image that may discourage female students from pursuing these fields.

But when the researchers exposed middle-school girls to women who were feminine and successful in STEM fields, the experience actually diminished the girls’ interest in math, depressed their plans to study math, and reduced their expectations of future success. The women’s “combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls,” the authors conclude, adding that “gender-neutral STEM role models,” as well as feminine women who were successful in non-STEM fields, did not have this effect.

Does this mean that we have to give up our most illustrious role models? There is a way to gain inspiration from truly exceptional individuals: attend to their failures as well as their successes. This was demonstrated in a study by Huang-Yao Hong of National Chengchi University in Taiwan and Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University.

The researchers gave a group of physics students information about the theories of Galileo Galilei, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein. A second group received readings praising the achievements of these scientists. And a third group was given a text that described the thinkers’ struggles. The students who learned about scientists’ struggles developed less-stereotyped images of scientists, became more interested in science, remembered the material better, and did better at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks related to the lesson—while the students who read the achievement-based text actually developed more stereotypical images of scientists.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the experimental materials, about the development of Newton’s theory of gravitation: “While the famous fable suggests that Newton was inspired by seeing an apple drop from a tree, it was actually his hard work and inquisitive nature that led to his formulation of a gravitational theory. As he said, ‘I keep the subject constantly before me, till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into the full and clear light.’”

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Annie Murphy Paul

    Annie Murphy Paul is a book author and magazine journalist who writes about how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributor to Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart,” to be published by Crown in 2014. You can read more about the science of learning at her website, www.anniemurphypaul.com.