Women, Men, and Math Problems.

June 10, 2012 BY danariely

In the experiments my colleagues and I have run on cheating, we’ve used a task in which pride about personal performance and ability has no part. The matrix test is merely a search task (wherein participants find the two numbers out of 12 that add up to 10) rather than a skill. It’s not something you’re going to brag to your friends about in all likelihood.

Recent graduate Heidi Nicklaus of Rutgers University was interested in the opposite; she wondered how people’s pride about their perceived and imputed abilities would affect their dishonesty. Specifically, she was interested in gender stereotypes. We’ve all heard the stereotype that men tend to excel at math more than women, and that women can talk and write circles around men with their superior verbal skills. So the question was, if men are more proud of their mathematic ability and women of verbal, it might cause them to cheat more.

In her experiment, Heidi first primed her participants with two comical videos that exaggerate gender stereotypes (see below). Then participants were presented with one of two sets of fake data (presented as legitimate); one supported the math versus verbal aptitude stereotypes, the other countered them. Finally, participants took brief 10-question tests measuring both math and verbal aptitude, and were told they would receive $.50 for each correct answer. Similar to the experiments my colleagues and I have run on cheating, half of participants in each condition could cheat while the other half could not.

The results showed that when people could cheat, they generally did, which is what I’ve always found in cheating experiments. On average, people claimed one extra correct answer than when cheating was not possible (an average of 4 instead of 3 correct answers out of 10 on both math and verbal tests). No news here, so what about the effect of gender stereotypes? Did having them reinforced or, alternatively, countered before taking the test have any influence on cheating?

First, the hypothesis. What Heidi expected to find was that men and women would cheat along stereotypical lines, that is, that men would cheat more on math (to show that they did, indeed, excel in mathematics) and women would cheat more on the verbal portion for the same reason. So it was intriguing when Heidi found that men cheated more on math question than expected, but men and women cheated equally on verbal questions (rather than women cheating more as anticipated).

These findings—that people did not cheat more to keep up with perceived higher achievement by others—are similar to what my colleagues and I have found. In one experiment our results showed, similarly, that people cheated by the same amount regardless of whether they thought their peers solved an average of 4 or 8 out of 20 questions in a given amount of time (reporting an average of 6 correct answers). People cheated as much as they could justify, and apparently others’ performance is not of any great concern in this justification.

Oh, and as for the stereotype that kicked off the experiment: there were no differences in performance on math or verbal questions based on gender. So hopefully this harmful stereotype will fall by the wayside sooner rather than later, since nearly all similar studies yield the same conclusion.