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Are men better than women at math? The difference may be psychological

young woman in glasses prepares to write on blackboard

Image: Wikimedia Commons (Dorian Electra)

Why are men in the United States more likely than women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics?

According to researchers at Texas A&M University, the difference could be a phenomenon known as “positivity bias.” Put simply, men may be more likely than women to overestimate their mathematical skills.

Heather Lench, an associate professor of psychology, and her collaborators published their findings in the June issue of the journal Sex Roles.

Lench specializes in emotion and cognition, decision-making, forecasting and optimism. “Positivity bias is a bias toward being more positive than can be justified by reality. These biases can arise about the past, present or future. In this particular article we focused on positivity bias in people’s evaluations of their past performance,” she says.

The research team gave college students (mostly freshmen) a math test that included problems taken from the SAT, a standardized test for college admissions in the United States. Next, the researchers asked the students how well they thought they had performed on the test.

Lench says, “We evaluated the difference between how they thought they had done and how they had actually done.”

Participants also reported on their past experiences with math, how generally competent they believe they are in math, and their interest in pursuing math courses and careers.

The investigation revealed the male subjects overestimated how well they had done, whereas women were fairly accurate in estimating their performance.

“This suggests that men are demonstrating a positivity bias in their evaluation of their math performance that women do not demonstrate,” Lench says.