By now, many of you have seen the main Web video in the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. It shows a police sketch artist sitting behind a curtain. He interviews women he can’t see about their own faces and he draws them, based on their descriptions. Then he asks other people to describe the faces of those same women and makes another sketch.
The portraits based on the women’s own descriptions are sadder, less attractive and more closed-off than the portraits based on descriptions from others.
But the real payoff comes as we watch the women first look at the two portraits side by side. They approach the sketches with self-conscious smiles on their faces. But when they notice how much darker and unattractive the portraits based on their self-descriptions are, the smiles collapse into looks of shocked self-realization. One woman sheds a tear.
As social science, this video wouldn’t pass muster (a lot depends on the biases of the artist and the editors). But it does highlight a phenomenon most of us recognize: Many women are too self-critical about their looks while many guys are too self-flattering.
For me, the video raised questions that go beyond body image, questions about self-confidence. I was going to write a column about these questions, but I realized I didn’t know the answers and the studies I consulted weren’t helping.
So I thought this might be a job for crowd-sourcing sociology. I’m going to throw out some questions. If you (women and men) send answers based on your experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll quote them in future columns. Please describe personal incidents, along with general observations.
The first question: A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?
For decades, surveys indicated men had a higher self-esteem than women. But there is some evidence that the gap has narrowed or vanished. A 2011 study from the University of Basel based on surveys of 7,100 young adults found that young women had as much self-esteem as young men.
That tracks with some of my experience. My perception in college was that more men were seminar baboons — dominating the discussions whether they had done the reading or not. But now, when I visit college classes, the women seem just as assertive as the men.
But I’m not sure that this classroom assertiveness carries out into the world of work, or today’s family and friendship roles. And I’m not sure we’ve achieved parity when it comes to elemental confidence. When you read diaries of women born a century or centuries ago, you sometimes see them harboring doubts about their own essential importance, assumptions that they are to play a secondary role on earth, and feelings that their identity is dependent on someone else. How much does that mind-set linger?
Which leads to the second question: Are women still more likely to flow into different domains in your organization? For example, a study by the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education found that, when working in groups, highly accomplished male students gravitated toward the technical tasks, while highly accomplished female students gravitated toward the administrative tasks.
Some psychologists have observed that male self-confidence tends to be based on efficacy, how they perform tasks, while female self-confidence tends to be based on self-worth, on more general traits like integrity and compassion. If that’s true, men may be more eager to prove themselves by leaping to do the hard jobs.
Third: Do we undervalue the talent for self-criticism the women display in that video? Obviously, you want people to be assertive enough to leap forward, but you also want them to be self-aware enough to honestly evaluate themselves.
We have piles of evidence to show that people overtrust their judgment and overestimate their goodness. Also, there is no easy correlation between self-esteem and actual performance.
Maybe the self-criticism those women displayed in the Dove ad is a rare skill to be harnessed and valued, at least to a degree. Maybe the self-observation talents that lead to bad feelings because we are imperfect also lead to better decision-making and better behavior for those capable of being acutely aware of their imperfections.
This leads to my final question: In society over all, are more problems caused by overconfidence or underconfidence? The financial crisis and the tenor of our political debates suggest that overconfidence and self-idolatry are by far the larger problems. If that’s true, how do you combine the self-critical ability to recognize your limitations with the majestic confidence required to struggle against them?
I guess I’m asking how to marry self-criticism and self-assertion, a blend our society is inarticulate about. I guess I’m wondering, as we make this blend, whether most of us need more of the stereotypically female trait of self-doubt or the stereotypically male trait of self-promotion.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.MORE IN Election Letters
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