Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Self-Concept & Well-being

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – your right.
~Henry Ford or Virgil

On this last day of Women’s History month, here is some research for:

  • Women,
  • Men,
  • Non-binary Folks,
  • People with feminine/communal and/or masculine/agentic personality traits, and
  • The people who love, teach, or lead them.

Intellectual self-image can have a profound impact on motivation, persistence, self-efficacy, the pursuit of goals, educational attainment, and performance.  While men and women do not differ in general intelligence, males frequently provide higher estimates of their own intelligence than do women.  The phenomenon has been called the male hubris, female humility (MHFH) problem. 

The MHFH problem is important because students or employees who feel less intellectually capable may be less motivated, select less challenging courses or projects, and may be underrepresented in science fields.  One possible explanation for the MHFH problem is that men and boys report higher self-esteem than women and girls.  Gender stereotypes may also be a factor.  When participants are asked to estimate the intelligence of their parents, fathers are rated as more intelligent than mothers.  And sons are assessed as more intelligent than daughters by parents.

The gender schema theory includes sex-typing, which is the way an individual acquires stereotypically feminine or masculine personality traits, behaviors, and interests.  The gender schema of a person is a product of biology and environment.  Some people are highly sex-typed, which means they are motivated to adhere to the traditional gender norms of their self-concept.  Others are psychologically androgenous, which means they are more flexible, and they incorporate a healthy balance of feminine and masculine personality traits into their self-concept.

Recent research examined whether social category (female or male) or personality traits (femininity or masculinity) is a better predictor of self-esteem and self-estimated intelligence.  Researchers recruited 228 university student participants (125 female, 103 male, average age of 23 years) from a 1st-year research methods and statistics course.  They were told the study involved the accuracy of self-estimates of human intelligence.  Data was collected in this order: self-estimated intelligence survey, Cattell Cultural Fair IQ Test, self-esteem survey, sex-role identification survey, and demographic information.  The research revealed that:

  • Males reported higher self-estimated intelligence than females;
  • Men reported higher general and academic self-esteem than women; and
     
  • People with more masculine/androgenous/agentic personality traits reported higher general and academic self-esteem than people with feminine/communal personality traits.  Agentic personalities tend to display assertiveness, self-promotion, and dominance, while communal personalities feature caring, politeness, and modesty.

The researchers described some of the implications of this research:

  • Women and people with feminine/communal personality traits, who underestimate their intelligence, may have less motivation, select courses they perceive are easier, and pursue lower educational goals than they have the ability to achieve.  This can negatively impact their social, educational, and financial progress.
  • Men and people with more masculine/androgenous/agentic personality traits, who have an unrealistically inflated assessment of their intelligence, may become discouraged when they encounter academic struggles or obstacles, which could lead to failure and increase the risk of dropping out of school.
  • Strategic praise, paired with instruction on growth mindset (with effort, it is possible to improve your knowledge-base, skills, and personality traits) can help students (and presumably children and employees) who underestimate their own abilities.

What can people do for themselves?  Practice “Fierce Self-Compassion.”  Kristin Neff states that there are 3 elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and awareness of suffering.  These elements manifest differently in people with communal personalities than in people with agentic personalities.

In people with communal personalities, self-compassion shows up as “loving, connected presence.”  During times of struggle, they deploy self-kindness by using self-care, common humanity to acknowledge that suffering is part of the shared human condition, and mindful awareness to validate and accept suffering, and facilitate healing and transformation.

In people with agentic personalities, self-compassion shows up as “fierce, empowered truth.”  In the face of challenges, these folks utilize self-kindness to boldly protect themselves, common humanity to acknowledge they are not alone and to reject shame, and mindfulness to recognize the truth and inspire change.

Both aspects of self-compassion are necessary for well-being.  Communal self-compassion leads to less self-judgment and more self-acceptance.  Agentic self-compassion leads to resilience and the capacity to actively cope with adversity.

Takeaway:  This research supports the need to train for, and accept in, all people a balance of communal and agentic personality traits to promote individual well-being, maximize human potential, and solve the world’s wicked problems.

Well-being is a journey, not a quick fix

Sources

Reilly, D., Neumann, D., and Andrews., G., Gender Differences in Self-Estimated Intelligence: Exploring the Male Hubris, Female Humility Problem, Frontiers in Psychology, Feb. 7, 2022, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.812483/full.

Neff, K., Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion, Greater Good Magazine, Oct. 17, 2018, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_women_need_fierce_self_compassion.

Quote Investigator, Feb. 3, 2015, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/02/03/you-can/.

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