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Believe it

An article earlier this week in the Washington Post reported that administering placebos — sugar pills — during clinical trials is remarkably effective at treating depression. This is by now somewhat old news, but it gives me the opportunity to excerpt an even older article, an (alas) subscription-only piece from the Economist of a few months ago.

Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychologist, examined the impact of varying confidence levels in otherwise equally qualified groups of men and women mathematics students, all taking the same exam, the Economist reported:

As the test was being distributed, one group was informed that it had proved to be sex-neutral: men and women performed equally well in it. To the other group, which acted as a control, no such comment was made.

As popular prejudice predicted men outperformed women in the control group. In the experimental group, however, not only did the women do better than their sisters in the control group, but the men did worse than their brothers there. The result was an equal performance by both sexes.

Not only does false confidence have its advantages, some of us don't even know we have it. (Heh.)

(As usual, if you'd like me to email you a copy of the full article, just let me know.)

May 9, 2002 12:06 PM

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