Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Nerds Grow Up

I wrote a post, Socially-Inept Scientists, some time ago about how scientists as a group might be less socially adept than the wider population.  It seemed to strike a chord with readers and is the top-visited post.  I followed up with a poll, which has been running for about 30 weeks, to determine how scientists vs. non-scientists view themselves in terms of social aptitude (see nav bar to right).

My earlier statement was not meant to imply that scientists are all lacking in social skills or to impugn those scientists who (like me) tend to be introverted.  It was based more on my belief that scientists are often intensely focused on their work, a characteristic that often goes along with social awkwardness.  Not always, but enough to be noticeable.  In fact, our society has adopted a widely-used term to describe such people: nerds.  The definition of a "nerd" is "an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit" Wikepedia. The description goes on to say "Nerds are generally considered to be awkward, shy and/or unattractive by most, although this is not always true."

When I was growing up in the 1950's, the terms used to describe such people were "drips", "squares", or "brains".  These names were applied to those of us who made good grades and were interested in certain subjects that most everyone else found to be strange, complicated, and/or boring (science, math, physics).  These are all derogatory terms that stereotype people, of course, and those branded with such a name were often the target of bullies. Nerd girls can be particularly vulnerable, as depicted in the film "Welcome to the Dollhouse".

We were not in the popular crowd, were not "cool", and typically existed at the margins of our teenage social web. We were often not very physically attractive or graceful (hence we did not date much and avoided sports).  A few of us who had "normal" siblings or who managed to make friends with one of the "in crowd" were sometimes more readily accepted by our peers. 

What happens to nerds when they grow up?  Answer: they often become adult nerds.  Some, like Bill Gates, go on to become multi-billionaires, but still never shed their nerdy persona.  That's why those commercials featuring a "cool" guy (Hi, I'm a Mac) and a nerdy guy who looks a lot like Gates (Hi, I'm a PC) are so spot-on.  One of these commercials, in case you missed this ad campaign by Apple, even pokes fun at the PC (nerd's) inability to communicate (with an attractive female):

So even Bill Gates, with all his success, is still depicted as a socially awkward person (although I doubt he stays awake at night worrying about this).  In spite of the mean spirited theme of these commercials, most people find them amusing, especially Mac owners (a number of ad campaigns revolve around stereotypes or parodies of stereotyping, e.g., the Geico caveman commercials).

Anyway, all those other nerds in high school grew up and many became scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.  Some, like me, overcame our social awkwardness (more or less).  Others did not or even got worse.  Of course, there were those who were not "nerds" growing up, but also became scientists.  The point is that the scientist population receives a lot of those people who were "nerds" in childhood. Their single-mindedness and intense interest in intellectual topics predisposes them for careers in STEM fields. They are certainly less likely to become social workers or politicians.

Which brings us to the poll.  The results are quite interesting (if unscientific).  Note that many more scientists voted than non-scientists, so we must take these findings with a grain of salt, so to speak.  Most of you (scientists and non-scientists) seem to be Impostors, i.e., socially awkward, but can fake social aptitude. In both cases, about 36% of respondents checked this category.  Another 8 to 10% selected other socially-challenged categories (Wallflower and Social Outcast).  More scientists (43%) than non-scientists (28%) selected one of the top two categories (Social Butterfly and Congenial Comrade). The third category, Split Personality, which should be considered in the socially-inept group, was selected by 11% of scientists and 22% of non-scientists.

So, what does this say about the social aptitude of scientists? Well, first, it's clear that over half of you (55%) think you have some problems.  The other half think you are socially adept. Second, the pattern for scientists is fairly similar to that of non-scientists, with minor differences.  This outcome suggests that the social skills of scientists are similar to that of the wider population.  However, it's possible that the half who think they are socially-adept are over-estimating their social skills and the half who think they are socially-challenged are under-estimating their skills.  We would have to poll your friends and colleagues to see if they agree with your self-assessment. 

I found it most interesting that the majority of both scientists and non-scientists selected the Impostor choice.  I added that category at the last moment, because as I was making up the choices I realized that none of the categories was what I would select for myself.  In other words, Impostor is the category that best fits me. It's especially interesting in light of the recent posts I've written about the "impostor phenomenon", which women more than men tend to experience.  Even though that's about feelings of inadequacy about one's professional skills, it could also encompass social skills.

I don't think we can make too much more out of the poll, given its limitations. But it was fun to see how people responded.  I'll leave it up to those who study these things to tell us whether scientists on average differ from the rest of the world in social aptitude.  In the meantime, if you are feeling socially-challenged, especially in professional settings, you can reread the original post, which has some suggestions that might help.

I'll be moving the poll to the bottom of the page after this post.  Thanks to everyone who voted!

Image Credit: Modified image and a video from a commercial by TBWA\Media Arts Lab for Apple Inc.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quest for Equality

I often wonder about our ancient ancestors and what were the real roles of men and women in ensuring survival of early humans.  I was reminded of this recently when I saw an ad for a film I watched many years ago (1981)--one that was quite interesting and entertaining.  It remains one of the most unusual and thought-provoking depictions of prehistoric humans (although one can quibble about the science and postulated interactions between humans and pre-humans). 

In the film, "Quest for Fire", a group of prehistoric tribesmen (Homo neanderthalensis) embark on a search for fire.  Lacking fire-making knowledge, primitive humanoids depended on finding natural sources of fire or stealing it from other clans.  After being attacked by another group (Homo erectus), their official fire tender (an especially clutzy guy) loses their fire source.  Consequently, three other male clan members are selected to find or steal another fire source.  During their adventure, they barely survive encounters with sabre-tooth cats, mastodons, cave bears, and cannibalistic groups. Eventually, they meet up with a female (Ika) from another, more advanced group (Homo sapiens).  The trio rescue her from the cannibals, and she tries to persuade them (non-vocally, since they have no common language) to return with her to her tribe. One of the males (Naoh) decides to follow her....

To make a long story short, Naoh discovers that this tribe knows how to make fire. The scene in which he realizes that it's possible to start a fire by "rubbing two sticks together" is pretty touching. The trio eventually return to their clan. One of the most hilarious scenes occurs when they hand over a new fire source, carefully packaged in a hollowed-out piece of wood, to the fire tender. Unfortunately, the clan has been hanging out in a marsh, and the clumsy fire tender, in his extreme excitement over getting a new fire source, stumbles into the water and douses the embers. One wonders how many times this has happened over human history: an incompetent man in charge of an extremely important task (see previous posts about the Dunning-Kruger effect).

Not to worry. Our hero proceeds to show his clan how to make fire.  Drumroll....   Unfortunately, Naoh never actually practiced the fire-making technique--he only saw it done by the Homo sapiens tribesmen.  After an unsuccessful and embarrassing attempt, he is about to give up, when Ika (who has followed him) takes over and makes the fire. They live happily ever after.

I was impressed that this film actually had such a scene and others--in which a woman was shown to be superior to a man (in more ways than one). If you've read my previous posts about Hollywood depictions of women, you know that such films are rare.

Some anthropologists suggest that the Paleolithic was the most gender-equal time in human history. Archeological evidence indicates that male and female members of prehistoric groups both participated in decision-making and that some females were of high status. That makes sense to me. For a group to survive, all the members would have to have multiple skills, especially basic survival skills, and to be flexible in allowing anyone who was especially good at some task to use that talent to promote the success of the group.  That egalitarian approach should have provided an edge over groups that may have had more restrictive gender roles in which an individual's inherent skills were not necessarily realized (lowering their overall competitiveness with other groups). 

Anyway, it makes one think about gender roles in modern human cultures, the future survival of our species, and whether our Paleolithic ancestors have something to teach us with respect to the advantages of an egalitarian society.

Image Credits: modified images from "Quest for Fire", International Cinema Corporation (Trivia: this film won an Oscar for best makeup).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lie to Me

In the previous post, I posed a hypothetical situation in which a post-doc, Jim, suffers from overconfidence in his abilities, and despite Jim's obvious deficiencies, the lab director thinks he's a valuable contributor to the research project you lead. 

If you've read previous posts, you will recognize that Jim (and possibly the lab director) suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. People with this condition are unskilled and incapable of accurately assessing their abilities as well as those of others. The reason is that the skills required to be competent are often the same skills required to evaluate that competence.  They tend to greatly overinflate their performances relative to those of others.  The more ignorant they are, the greater their confidence in themselves.

In the hypothetical situation described above, the project leader is caught between a rock (Jim) and a hard place (lab director).  You have laid out Jim's deficiencies, backed up with ample data, for both Jim and the director...only to have both of them ignore your logical argument and restate their illogical position about Jim's competence.  Their reaction is due to their overall inability to make logical judgments and to recognize that they have this problem.....a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. The more logic you throw at them, the more firmly they adhere to their mistaken opinion and confidence in that decision.

Most of us in science are pretty logical people; so when confronted with such illogical behavior, we go a little nuts.  We simply cannot understand how someone can totally ignore the evidence in front of them.  We make the mistake of thinking that if we just produce enough evidence or a clear-enough argument, that we'll prevail.  However, that is not going to happen with people like this. Think about religious zealots or climate deniers....nothing you say is going to change their minds.  You have to approach such people with a clear understanding of their psychology, not based on your preconceived notions that everyone is as logical as you are.

What does work?  Research has shown that training, for example in social reasoning, helps improve Dunning-Kruger folks' cognitive abilities.  How does that help you, as a project leader? You're not a psychologist; nor do you have time to be training someone who should already have skills in logic.  Quite a conundrum. I don't think there is a really good solution to this situation.

If I had control over this person's position, i.e., was Jim's supervisor, I would place him on probation and clearly outline what outcomes are expected for all tasks, set deadlines for those outcomes, and spell out the consequences of failure. The plan would be detailed in such a way as to leave no wiggle-room for Jim to blame external factors, if he fails.  Both of us must sign this performance plan, acknowledging our understanding of what's expected and the consequences.  If he protests, I would reply that since he is so confident in his abilities, he should have no problem meeting these basic expectations (which I have set up for all others on the team).  If Jim manages to improve and meets his responsibilities, then things will have been improved for the team, and everyone wins.  If Jim fails, then I have documentation to take steps to dismiss him; but I won't feel badly because I've been totally fair and upfront with him.

However, in the hypothetical situation posed, I would not have control over Jim's position, and I also have to deal with the director who suffers from the same cognitive deficit as Jim. In this situation, I would want to get Jim off my team so that his performance no longer harmed me or others.  Here is one possible tactic:  I would suggest to Jim that he should have his own project to run and that he should run the idea by the director.  I would support Jim's proposal when the director asks my opinion.  Convincing the director should not be difficult, given his lack of logic skills and being Jim's biggest fan.

The key will be to have Jim report directly to the director rather than to me.  If the director tries to make me oversee Jim's project, I have two possible responses: 1) I cannot be in charge of Jim's performance unless I'm made his official supervisor (in which case, I can put the previous plan in motion), 2) I state that I have my hands full leading my own project and cannot be expected to handle a second project, and/or 3) I remind him that making me responsible for Jim's project defeats the purpose of giving Jim his own project.  Hopefully, this would not be too much logic for the director to handle.

Assuming I can pull this off, I will no longer have Jim on my team.  Even if this means more work for the team...well, we already were having to redo his work. And the director will eventually see for himself Jim's incompetency. If not, then I might want to start looking for another job--because the director is probably not judging my performance well either.

Some might feel that the above plan is unfair or underhanded.  Actually, this problem with Jim is due entirely to Jim's incompetence and to the director's failure to deal with it.  The two people responsible for the problems the research project is experiencing (mistakes, slow progress, low morale) should have to deal with them, not me and not the other productive team members. The latter situation is what is unfair.  My plan takes the false beliefs of Jim and the director and forces the two of them to deal with the consequences.

So to summarize how to deal with someone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect:

1. Don't make the mistake of assuming they think like you do. Trying to use logic doesn't work because they do not think logically.
2. Focus on their overinflated beliefs and take advantage of them in formulating your strategy.
3. Don't cover for them when their incompetency causes problems.
4. Find a way to make them responsible for the consequences of their incompetency.

Image Credit: Jon Wilkins 2011; Creative Commons;

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lost in Translation

What would you do if faced with the following situation?

You are part of a research team that is involved in a large project. One of the team members, a post-doc, is very enthusiastic and outgoing. Jim exudes confidence in his abilities and contributions to the project. Unfortunately, Jim is a total disaster in the lab, and his writing is abysmal.  Worse, he is blissfully unaware of his incompetence, despite repeatedly being shown his mistakes.  As project leader, it falls upon you to clean up Jim's mistakes, reassign work (that has been compromised) to other team members, and revise his reports.  Jim's manuscripts have to be completely rewritten from scratch, but he still expects to be listed as first author and behaves as if the revised version is his work.  The other team members have become resentful of Jim and complain to you often. 

You cannot replace Jim because you do not have the authority; only the lab director can dismiss someone.  The lab director is totally enamored with Jim, whose overconfident behavior has convinced the director that he is one of the most valuable members of the research team. The director is also a person who lacks the metacognitive skills (or time) to accurately assess Jim's real competency.  You have tried to convince the director that Jim's performance is substandard and is hurting the group's progress, but he remains adamant in his confidence that Jim is competent.  The director believes Jim has just made a couple of mistakes, which could happen to anyone.

What would you do?  See the next post for how I would respond. In the meantime, take a look at the video below for a nice explanation of the Dunning-Kruger effect...and see if it suggests any solutions.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Being an Impostor

 This post is a continuation of the previous discussion of the "impostor phenomenon" and the "Dunning-Kruger effect". To review, people suffering from the former condition don't believe themselves to be qualified, despite ample evidence as to their skills and qualifications, and worry about being uncovered as an impostor.  The latter condition is characterized by over-confidence, completely out of proportion to actual skills (the greater the incompetence, the higher the confidence).  For more details, see the previous two posts. 
You can also test yourself as to your "impostor" tendency here.

In this post, I'd like to explore how someone with a tendency toward "impostor phenomenon" (IP) might learn to avoid such negative feelings and associated behavior.  The basic problem, according to psychologists, is that such people fail to internalize their accomplishments and skills, and so view themselves as less capable than others.  I can imagine that this condition might arise through various personality traits and environmental factors during childhood.  One particular interaction that occurs to me is how much a person depends on the approval and affirmation by others--too much reliance on accolades from others might predispose someone to the condition, for example. 

Even if you are thinking that you don't have this problem, consider this: our self-image changes over time and in response to our surroundings and how others treat us.  One thing is certain in life, and that is change.  I think most people can remember one time or another when they felt inadequate and were worried about being able to accomplish a task, do well on an exam, or live up to expectations (of parents, advisers, employers). I pointed out in the previous post that students are susceptible to IP upon being thrust from school into a job where they are expected to be fully competent (after years of being told they are not yet competent).  I experienced this feeling upon completing my Ph.D., but it faded with time.  I can imagine this could strike anyone at any point in their career--going from one job to a new job, for example.

There may be a couple of ways to deal with IP--both of which helped me.

I mentioned above the reliance on others for affirmation of one's skills.  Therein lies one possible source of help: surround yourself with people who are supportive, who reaffirm a positive image of yourself, and who encourage you to view yourself realistically (by pointing out your obvious skills and accomplishments when you express doubts, for example).

Obviously, it would be better if you were not reliant on others to avoid feeling like a fraud, but it's not likely to be easy for you to change this aspect of your personality without extensive therapy.  However, you can avoid people who make you feel worse and seek out people who are supportive.  However, that will likely get you only part-way to squashing any impostor feelings.

Another method that I found helpful was to remind myself often about my own accomplishments. I've read about accomplished scientists (with IP) who would frequently reread one of their best papers to remind themselves just how good it was (therefore, how good they are).  People with IP tend to be highly accomplished, so having such reminders is usually not a problem.  I've also done this on occasion when I was feeling wobbly about starting a new and challenging writing project. By reading something I had previously written, which was published in a good journal, helped me internalize the fact that if I was capable of doing it once, I could do it again--no sweat. Anyone can use this approach --with a paper they've written, an exam they aced, or a great blog post they wrote that got a lot of positive comments!

For more on stories of female scientists suffering from IP and strategies for overcoming IP, see this article at Naturejobs.

Image credit: modified photo from