Women, according to about a million researchers, management experts and self help gurus, have trouble touting their own achievements and that doesn’t help their careers. But a new study may have revealed a novel way to overcome that deficit by bamboozling women into more effective self-promotion using a mysterious black box.The small study, published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly by Jessi L. Smith, professor of psychology at Montana State University, and former student Meghan Huntoon, asked about 60 freshman female students to write an essay about their own achievements. This is something of a life skill; people who communicate their abilities and accomplishments in a relaxed and persuasive way are often the ones rewarded. In this case, the best essays, as judged by an impartial panel, could win up to $5,000.
One group of about 20 students were placed in a room with a 3-ft. by 3-ft. box, which they were told was “a subliminal noise generator.” The noise this machine made was too high for humans to hear, participants were informed, but it nevertheless sometimes caused discomfort. Oddly, the students who wrote their self-promotional essays in that room were awarded up to $1,000 more for their essays than students in the other rooms.
Quick, where can the entire female population buy a subliminal noise generator? “There’s no such thing as a subliminal noise generator,” says Smith. “It was total fiction.” But it offered the women a convenient explanation for any nervousness they felt when they were writing about themselves. They could believe that it wasn’t their lack of modesty that was making them uncomfortable, it was the infernal black box at the center of the room. Somehow that transference made it easier for them to be self promotional.
If you’re thinking you might paint a grocery box that color anyway and out it in your office, just in case, don’t bother. Another group of students were put in a room with a black box but were not “warned” that it might make them anxious. They did significantly worse on the essay test.
While the test is kind of goofy and the sample size pretty small, it might be worth exploring the implications of the results. How can women be made to feel comfortable about promoting themselves? Do they have to be tricked into it? Rather than installing discomfort stations into middle management floors of organizations everywhere, bosses might perhaps look at the study’s other results.
An additional 20 women were asked to write about the achievements of their friends. Those essays were very well-rewarded. Women were happy to plug the abilities of people they knew and liked. If everybody did that, it might mean women didn’t have to do so much self-promotion after all. Either that or maybe we’ve found the meaning for that monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey at last.