Peer Influence Drives Math Confidence in Boys

Summary: Boys’ math confidence is heavily influenced by peer comparisons, while girls base their self-assessment on actual performance. Despite similar math abilities, girls often lack confidence compared to boys.

This confidence gap impacts career choices, leading to fewer women in STEM fields. The study highlights the need for addressing peer dynamics to foster math confidence in both genders.

Key Facts:

  1. Boys’ math confidence is influenced by peer comparisons, while girls rely on performance.
  2. Despite similar abilities, girls have lower math confidence, affecting career choices.
  3. Addressing peer dynamics could help bridge the gender gap in STEM fields.

Source: University of Zurich

Boys are good at math, girls not so much? A study from the University of Zurich has analyzed the social mechanisms that contribute to the gender gap in math confidence.

While peer comparisons seem to play a crucial role for boys, girls’ subjective evaluations are more likely to be based on objective performance.

Research has shown that in Western societies, the average secondary school girl has less confidence in her mathematical abilities than the average boy of the same age. At the same time, no significant difference has been found between girls’ and boys’ performance in mathematics.

This shows boys working on math on a blackboard.
As expected, the main predictor of math confidence is individual math grades. While girls translated their grades – more or less directly – into self-assessment, boys with below-average grades nevertheless believed they were good at math. Credit: Neuroscience News

This phenomenon is often framed as girls not being confident enough in their abilities, or that boys might in fact be overconfident.

This math confidence gap has far-reaching consequences: self-perceived competence influences educational and occupational choices and young people choose university subjects and careers that they believe they are talented in.

As a result, women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects at university level and in high-paying STEM careers.

Peer processes provide nuanced insights into varying self-perceptions

A study from the University of Zurich (UZH) focuses on a previously neglected aspect of the math confidence gap: the role of peer relationships.

“Especially in adolescence, peers are the primary social reference for individual development. Peer processes that operate through friendship networks determine a wide range of individual outcomes,” said the study’s lead author Isabel Raabe from the Department of Sociology at UZH.

The study analyzed data from 8,812 individuals in 358 classrooms in a longitudinal social network analysis.

As expected, the main predictor of math confidence is individual math grades. While girls translated their grades – more or less directly – into self-assessment, boys with below-average grades nevertheless believed they were good at math.

Boys tend to be overconfident and sensitive to social processes

“In general, boys seem to be more sensitive to social processes in their self-perception – they compare themselves more with others for validation and then adjust their confidence accordingly,” Raabe explains.

“When they were confronted with girls’ self-assessments in cross-gender friendships, their math confidence tended to be lower.” Peers’ self-assessment was less relevant to girls’ math confidence. Their subjective evaluation seemed to be driven more by objective performance.

Gender stereotypes did not appear to have negative social consequences for either boys or girls.

“We found that confidence in mathematics is often associated with better social integration, both in same-sex and cross-sex friendships,” said Raabe. Thus, there was no evidence of harmful peer norms pressuring girls to underestimate their math skills.

The results of the study suggest that math skills are more important to boys, who adjust their self-assessment in peer processes, while math confidence does not seem to be socially relevant for girls.

About this social neuroscience and math research news

Author: Barbara Simpson
Source: University of Zurich
Contact: Barbara Simpson – University of Zurich
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
The gendered maths confidence gap, social influence, and social integration” by Isabel Raabe et al. European Societies


The gendered maths confidence gap, social influence, and social integration

While there is little discernible difference between girls and boys in maths competence during secondary education, on average, girls have lower confidence in their maths skills.

Over time, this difference leads to gendered choices of education and occupation. Research explaining the maths confidence gap focusses on psychological factors and socialisation into stereotypical gender roles.

However, how the peer context shapes the self-perception of competence and how this self-image affects social integration and popularity of girls and boys is barely understood.

We analyse friendship networks and perceptions of maths confidence in Sweden and Germany to answer these questions using the CILS4EU dataset (N = 7,472) and multi-level, longitudinal network models. We find that maths confidence of girls accurately follows their maths grades and social relations have little impact on girls’ self-evaluation.

Boys tend to overestimate their ability and are more susceptible to peer processes; social comparison processes inform boys’ maths confidence. This suggests that math ability is important for boys but socially irrelevant for girls.

Concerning friendship choices, we find that boys and girls with higher maths confidence are often more integrated. Thus, we do not find social pressure on girls to adhere to gendered math-stereotypes – the opposite is the case.

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