Optimism Helps Female Students Excel, But Harms Males

By yadin katz November 29, 2011 Comments

Thinking back to your college or high school days, do you remember that one girl in your class who was always more organized than everyone else? The one who would always pull out the right note from the right notebook and whom you could always turn to for help? Now try to remember the slacker of the class. Who comes to mind? The athlete? The stud? Perhaps the guitar player?

A new study by researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel determined that optimism helps female studens excel, but on the other hand sabotages male students’ success.

The researchers – Tamar Icekson, a PhD student in the Department of Business Administration of the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, Prof. Ayala Malach-Pines and Prof. Oren Kaplan of the School of Business Administration at The College of Management – examined the attitudes and grades of 174 BGU undergraduates.

Their findings were that female students who were more optimistic achieved significantly higher grades than their less optimistic compatriots. For male students, however, too much optimism led to overconfidence and resulting lower grades.

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During their entire research, Icekson and Kaplan focused on positive psychology – the effect of positive emotions and thinking on behavior and presented their findings at the International Conference of Positive Psychology over the summer.

“Optimism in male students can lead to overconfidence or an attitude of ‘Things will work out for the best,'” Icekson says. “So instead of studying enough for a test, they go out and have a BBQ the night before.”

According to the study, those male students who scored as most optimistic got the lowest grades. For male students, optimism tempered by conscientiousness produced the best results.

However, there was no correspondingly high rate of conscientiousness among female students because it wasn’t necessary to achieve higher grades, according to Icekson. “For female students, optimism alone was beneficial because they’re naturally more conscientious than their male counterparts,” she says. “Women have a lower self-esteem and so if they are not sure things will work out, then they study for the test.”

Previous positive psychology studies have shown the value of dispositional optimism and conscientiousness in the workplace; however the academic context has not been particularly well-studied as yet.

In Icekson’s study, the dataset included 174 Faculty of Business and Management students (28% men and 72% women, ages 20-28, with an average age of 24). Each participant completed an anonymous self-report questionnaire, for which extra course credit was awarded.

Optimism was assessed using the Life Orientation Test. It is a one-dimensional measure that consists of 10 items, such as the following: ‘In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,’ and (the reversely scored) ‘If something can go wrong for me, it will.’  Academic performance was estimated using the student’s final B.A. grade.

Photo by MC Quinn

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