Small Groups Make Women Stupid

Ladies, do you ever feel less than intellectually adequate when you sit in a business meeting or attend a cocktail party? According to a new study, you might be right. Small groups reduce IQ performance, according to the researchers, especially in women.

To evaluate intelligence in small group settings, researchers recruited 68 adults at two academic centers in Texas and California. The study participants were each introduced to each other and then divided into groups of five to be administered standard IQ tests. First, the participants took written IQ tests to establish a baseline of intelligence. (The average IQ for the entire group was 126, well above the average of 100 for the general population in the United States.) The participants were not given any results or feedback regarding this first test. Following the written test, each participant took a computerized IQ test. After each set of questions, the participants were told how their answers ranked them within their small group.

Initially, everyone’s performance declined on the computerized IQ test upon hearing their rankings. The social status information provided enough mental interference or anxiety to cause a decrease in intellectual performance. The surprising finding was that women experienced a more pronounced decrease in performance than men. Of the 13 highest scores on the computerized IQ test, 10 belonged to men; 11 of the lowest scores belonged to women.

A subset of participants was able to overcome this anxiety to achieve normal or increased intellectual performance. Brain scans obtained during the tests revealed that these individuals had less activity in the amygdala (an area normally activated by stress and anxiety) compared with poorer performers. Additionally, the high performers had increased activity in the right lateral prefrontal cortex (an area associated with working memory that normally shuts down during stress). Scans also showed that the nucleus accumbens (an area associated with pleasure and reward) was involved in individuals’ reactions to getting questions right or wrong, in much the same way that individuals respond to money, praise, or other social rewards. These results do not uncover a cause of the decreased intellectual performance associated with small group participation, but they do highlight the neural basis of intelligence and the integration of perception, attention, language, memory, reasoning, and learning.

According to the authors, the results indicate that women are more sensitive to negative stereotypes about gender than men, which caused stress during intellectual tasks. Many studies of gender stereotypes have indicated similar phenomena. A stereotype is seen as a threat that individuals’ actions or other peoples’ judgments will further contribute to the negative stereotype, causing fear and stress during tasks. The resulting decreased performance, especially intellectually, triggers a devaluation of one’s self, a lack of identification with school, and poor decision making, which leads to a cycle of poor academic performance, poor career advancement, and economic disadvantages.

Group membership and participation have dramatic effects on individuals’ actions and beliefs – some good and some bad. Accordingly, the authors of the current study report that the expression of IQ can be modulated by implicit or explicit cues about social status within a group. Many similar studies have shown that societal-level stereotypes are harmful to intellectual performance, particularly in women. The extent to which these effects are significant in real-world settings is unclear, but stereotypes of small and large groups likely act as performance-based barriers. For now, the real question remains unanswered: how can individuals overcome the negative influences of social status and group membership? (Just don’t form a small group to figure out the answer.)


Carr PB, & Steele CM (2010). Stereotype threat affects financial decision making. Psychological science, 21 (10), 1411-6 PMID: 20855899

Colom R, Karama S, Jung RE, & Haier RJ (2010). Human intelligence and brain networks. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12 (4), 489-501 PMID: 21319494

Kishida KT, Yang D, Quartz KH, Quartz SR, & Montague PR (2012). Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 367 (1589), 704-16 PMID: 22271786

Steele CM (1997). A threat in the air. How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. The American psychologist, 52 (6), 613-29 PMID: 9174398

Image via Yuri Arcurs / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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