Sunday, September 27, 2009
Competition, Confidence, and Success
I was thinking the other day about the fact that scientists are dependent upon competitors (colleagues who compete with us for research $$ and for space in journals) for good reviews. Our promotions and status are often tied to how many papers we publish and how much grant funding we acquire. I can think of no other job in which a competitor has such an influence over the professional success of their peers. Attorneys, doctors, and other professionals have competitors, but their on-the-job performance is not often judged by peers in a way that has a substantive influence on their career success. Yes, their work may be judged by peers as outstanding, mediocre, or poor; but those opinions don’t necessarily prevent a doctor or attorney from having many clients and making lots of money. If they work for someone else, their job performance may be judged by supervisors or the owner of a business, but never based on the opinions of co-workers.
I was reminded of this difference while watching and reading about the confirmation hearings of Judge Sotomayor. Here is an instance in which a professional’s body of work is being put on display and which must be defended before being appointed to a prestigious position. She is being grilled by senators (mostly male), many of whom are either not educated in the law or who were not as successful as Sotomayor in the field of law. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a scientist to be quizzed by a group of non-scientists who do not really understand the finer points of one’s body of work. What you might think was a major finding that shed light on a particular topic, e.g., climate change, might be attacked by a questioner who claims that climate change is a hoax. Of course, that could be an opportunity to show how you can handle difficult questions. On the other hand, it might be easier to answer questions by non-scientists, rather than scientists, who know precisely where to dig.
I’ve noticed that scientists who confidently answer questions, even if the answer is wrong, are viewed as more erudite than those who are cautious in their answers. Scientists are notorious for not giving definitive answers to difficult questions—they provide so many caveats that the questioner concludes the scientist just isn’t knowledgeable. Ironically, it’s often the more knowledgeable person who equivocates—because they know how complicated the topic is and that there is no single, absolute answer. Ignorance, on the other hand, “begets confidence more frequently than does knowledge” (Charles Darwin).
Females tend to be more hesitant in giving a confident answer and standing by it when challenged. I see this all the time at meetings, in student defenses, etc. Yes, there are exceptions, but I’m talking about in general. What is it that makes us so uncertain about our abilities? Is the new generation of women more assured and fearless? What is different about those women who are confident? Were they always so, or did it develop over time?
I don’t have the answers. But my observation is that women’s opinions tend to be questioned more than men’s. If you are constantly challenged, it wears down your confidence. It takes a particularly strong-willed person to maintain their confidence in the face of frequent questioning or criticism. If you are never challenged, then I can imagine that you would develop a mindset that you are always right and ultimately exude an erudite bearing (warranted or not). This would suggest that we are trained to be confident (or not) based how we were treated growing up, in school, in the workplace, and other experiences. Also, there are likely biochemical differences (testosterone vs. estrogen) that determine aggression, modesty, etc., which determine how we react to such treatment. Nature and nurture.
We can’t do much about nature, but we can control our environment to some extent. If you are surrounded by negative people who are always critical of you, you have the option of changing your environment and relationships. It’s not always easy, of course, but then nothing worth having is typically easy.