Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Being Good at Art Is Important to Me as a Scientist

I previously described a study that found female students who participated in a writing exercise (to reflect about their most cherished values) performed better in a physics class.  I thought it might be worthwhile to show the full set of choices presented to the students.  Glancing at the list, I made my selection of the top three with little hesitation.  I then went on to write down why these values were important to me.  It definitely makes you think about what is really important and why.  The exercise also gives you an idea of what you might want to focus upon in the event you suffer some setback or are feeling down about yourself.
Here are the twelve values presented to the students in the writing exercise:
1.     being good at art
2.     creativity
3.     relationships with family & friends
4.     government or politics
5.     independence
6.     learning and gaining knowledge
7.     athletic ability
8.     belonging to a social group (community, racial, school club)
9.     music
10. career
11. spiritual or religious values
12. sense of humor
The investigators avoided values that dealt with science and math. The students were instructed to circle the two or three values that were most important to them.  Students in the control group were asked to circle the two or three least important values.  Then they were asked to describe in a few sentences either why the selected values were important to them or why they might be important to someone else (controls).  They were later asked to look at the values they selected and list the top two reasons why they were important. The final part of the exercise reinforced the choices by asking the student to rate their agreement with statements about the selected values (e.g., “in general, I try to live up to these values”).
This is a sufficiently broad list that most people would have no trouble finding three items that they think are important to them (or to others in the control group) as well as choices that would likely not be important.  Which three would you select and why?

One of my choices was being good at art (hence the title of this post).  Answering the question of why my choices are important was a bit more difficult, but very interesting. The reasons for my selections are personal and not really of interest to anyone else--so I will say no more about my choices.  What is important are your selections and why they are important to you.  This writing exercise is a way to bolster one’s resilience—the ability to bounce back from adversity.  It’s not so much the specific writing exercise, but the fact that it forces you to recognize what you value most about yourself and reinforces your overall sense of self-worth.

I think that leaving science or math-related attributes off the list is critical to the success of this exercise.  We might make the mistake of dwelling on the science or math skill (that we feel is a weakness) and magnifying it out of proportion to reality.  This reaction is human nature, and especially likely for women, e.g., what’s wrong with me that I can’t finish this project, get this paper accepted, get along with my adviser, etc.?  Having non-science capabilities or sources of support (family, religion) are powerful antidotes to career setbacks.  However, one first must be aware of what those values are and why they are important to us.  Identification is the first step.  It’s also important to actually write down our thoughts.  As I’ve talked about previously, the act of writing stimulates parts of our brains that are not otherwise tapped by just “thinking” about a topic.  Writing down our values and reasons also serves to solidify our confidence in those values.

As I noted in the previous post, this writing exercise is like cognitive therapy, where the patient is taught to examine dysfunctional thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.  People who are subjected to frequent scrutiny and harsh criticism can develop a distorted view of themselves.  Everything we do as scientists is scrutinized and assessed—by our peers, by advisors, by supervisors, by funding agencies. We are told to develop a thick skin, which may work well for men who generally tend to externalize such criticism (“What’s wrong with that reviewer—my work is superb!”).  That approach may not work so well for women who tend to internalize criticism and failure (“What’s wrong with me?”).

We can begin to see why this simple writing exercise might have such a powerful effect on women, but not men.  Instead of trying to emulate men (by externalizing), we might do better by re-balancing our self-image.  By placing the momentary criticism or problem within the overall context of our entire lives and skill-set, we can see how those professional setbacks are not as momentous as we think.

This insight is also helpful because it shows how important it is to develop values, talents, and resources outside of our science career.

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