The WaPo reports on an interesting study that suggests that test scores go up if test-takers aren’t first reminded that they’re not expected to do well. What’s really interesting is that the boys’ scores didn’t go up with positive reinforcement the way the girls’ did. The obvious conclusion is (duh) that boys, as Mr. B. once pointed out to some neanderthal co-workers, are given the message throughout childhood that they can do whatever they want, so they start off with a baseline self image of competence and ability that is frequently undermined for girls.
No duh. The reality is that boys and men tend to require negative reinforcement in order to reach peak performance. (Or if you prefer to be pedantic, negative encouragement.) Men feed off anger, which is why coaches scream at their football teams and why tennis players such as John McEnroe always tended to erupt at times when they were still in the match and had the opportunity to turn it around.
This is anecdotal, of course, but an important difference between male and female motivation was underlined for me during my collegiate track days. Wednesdays were Speed days for the sprinters, jumpers and hurdlers, which was a group of about 30 men and women at our lowly D1 school, and they were much dreaded because most of us always ended up vomiting before the end of the workout. We even used to color coordinate our lunches on occasion because we knew we’d be seeing them again in a few hours. Not eating wasn’t an option, as the dry heaves were much worse than merely losing lunch.
The Speed day from Hell was when we had to run 17 consecutive 200s under 28 seconds, each separated only by a 100-meter walk and a 100-meter jog. I started puking after number eight and it just got worse from there. Antwan, who was so proud of his iron stomach, finally lost it at fourteen. I swore I would never forgive the son of a bitch who coached us for lying and telling us that we were only going to do fifteen. We crossed the line, guys were collapsing with relief, and the bastard starts clapping his hands, saying: “one more… you got one more in you.” And he did it TWICE! Now, of course, it seems pretty funny.
That workout was a nightmare, but things were usually less brutal and it was always amusing to see how our SJH coach handled the sexes differently. The two groups ran separately but on the same 200-meter track, so as the women would flash by, he’d praise them and stroke their egos: “You’re looking strong, ladies, looking great! Keep it up, keep those arms pumping….” The women would bask in his praise, and, visibly energized by it, pick up their pace.
Then we’d pass him and his encouraging tones would switch immediately to a harsh, barking roar. “Is that all you’ve got, you worthless motherfuckers? If you don’t get a fucking move on, the girls are going to lap you ladies. Get those asses in gear!” There would be a few muttered curses in the pack, but our blood would be up and we’d pick up the pace. Coach would switch back and forth like that with every lap, as if he was schizophrenic.
Now, he was always experimenting with new ideas and techniques, so when we weren’t running, stretching or lifting weights we’d be doing anything from watching video to getting hypnotized, but one of his biggest failures was when he tried to mess with his schizo motivational method. First he tried screaming at the girls, they immediately got upset and slowed noticeably down. When he jacked up the volume and the intensity, one girl quit practice on the spot and two or three more were openly crying during the post-speed stretching. He had to meet with several of them later that week and assure them that it had just been an experiment, he didn’t plan to repeat it and he wouldn’t yell at them anymore.
The failure of positive encouragement with the men was just as obvious, if rather less dramatic. When one day, he unexpectedly began telling us how great we were doing, we immediately relaxed and began to take it easy. That experiment didn’t last quite as long, after about ten minutes of complimenting us and watching us get progressively slower, he was so furious that he soon reached new heights of linguistic inspiration and we were back to flying around the track again.
The differences between men and women are not primarily due to socialization, and no amount of feminist theorizing is going to change that.