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  • Cat Hicks

Expecting Success


A tweet from @johncutlefish that readsI've observed that some ppl who surmount systemic bias walk away believing that it is less of a factor  ("if you have drive you can beat this")  ...and others where their experience heightens their appreciation ("yes, I lucked out but others could not")  what decides this?

John asked a super interesting question. It’s one that I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering about. This is going to be my attempt to point to some areas of research I think are helpful here. There are many other approaches and lenses you could take to this question. But because I have worked a lot on individual humans’ learning beliefs and how that impacts their achievement and motivation and the stories they tell about that achievement and motivation, that's my jam.


Here are a few foundational things I think about. Believing your own effort counts/counted toward your success is not just a helpful thing, it’s a pretty key way we summon up the energy to do anything. However, there’s also believing that other people will see and believe in your success. That sounds similar but it’s different. For example, mid-career women in tech accurately assess their own skills but expect a harsher evaluation than comparable men (link). And on top of that, there is believing a whole field values something that you can do or–a worse state for a field to be in–something that you ‘are’ (link). So interpreting our own success is not (just) an individual decision, or, individual beliefs about success can sometimes serve as a sample of many other environmental things. Important to keep that in mind.


Given all this, we tell stories about what our success means. But we also struggle with probabilities at all, and thinking about our past achievement can elicit other cognitive effects. There are often ways in which we apply rose-colored glasses to past behavior (link) especially summarizing distantly over time, we remember enthusiasm as achievement (link), we struggle to see the impact of subtractive changes (link). I wonder about how much this difficulty seeing a cost or a weight once it is removed impacts many people's ability to think about adversity and opportunity. There’s probably a salience component to what we decide “counts” as causal. Our own effort is right in front of us, inside of our bodies. Systemic adversity is sometimes more intangible. After all, we can only guess about how it would have gone for someone else.


But not always. Future expectations and the Sisyphean cycle of past adversity are not remotely the same for all people. Rightfully so, many folks in tech have pointed this out wrt the constant drumbeat mention of imposter syndrome (one of those complex umbrella terms that tech has grabbed like my dog grabs a snorkel fin if you leave one unwisely on the beach–shaking it like a rat, taking it to every corner of the area, exhausting all possible utility of it). Imposter syndrome is not a syndrome at all if it is instead an accurate expectation that people will be more skeptical and worse to you than other people with a similar record (e.g., link). And we often live in networks of people like us, where we see systematically different examples of what success "counts." I wonder about the depth of those examples, how much they change your vicarious awareness of adversity, and how well we remember them or apply them to our explanations of our own success--that's actually something I believe needs more research (solidarity, representation, and openness about adversity are very complex topics, an example).


At evaluation moments, achievement is in the eye of the beholder. See this great paper (link) for an example of how even grades are not interprested equivalently for different groups (in this case, gender). There is a massive and heartrendingly urgent body of research on this for Black students’ achievement, giftedness, and brilliance (e.g., link, link; I also just got this book in the mail). There is so much research on biased evaluations in hiring (e.g., same resume experiments) that I don’t feel the need to cite it. Point is: people bring different expectations to the probabilities of their success in moments of evaluation and they are right about it. And then they remember those experiences, which are themselves systematically weighted and cumulative.


Over time, ~the signal and noise of it all~ adds up to various mental models of the world that we try to use to tell our success stories. And those success stories matter to what we do next. We face our decisions thinking about our own abilities (e.g., self-efficacy judgments), about what others value and will reward (link), and of course about how badly we want something and the cost of trying to get it (link). We try to stay motivated to achieve our goals, and telling triumphant stories about our past selves can be part of that (link). But we also face our decisions worried about threats and fatigued by places that carry reminders, continually, that we don’t belong (link).


So why do some people who seem to have gone through the same things weight systemic factors more or less? Well, I don't know that I have a whole answer. But I think if you’re a person experiencing a lot of adversity there is a good reason the whole thing can be motivating (“I have to work twice as hard”) and a good reason the whole thing can be demotivating (“the game is rigged, why play?”). We try to protect ourselves in unfair worlds. There are some decades of work on attributions as protective (link). How hard we go on these attributions, or our capacity to resist them, if we're motivated to change beliefs we begin to suspect are misperceptions (link), is undoubtedly influenced by complex amalgamation of factors including our energy and other resources, our stress, our other contributing beliefs (“how long do I have to work twice as hard before it pays off…do I even care about this payoff”). And of course, the way that our decisions and beliefs are constantly being influenced by the environment around us. And as pointed out in the original thread that sparked this ramble from me, a very key part of that influence certainly comes from our very deep differences in understanding equality (see here!). When we explain our own success to ourselves, we are also explaining society to ourselves.


It’s this environment and the explanations that it encourages that has always fascinated me, as a scientist. I frequently think that we may not have the right (or ability!) to intervene very successfully on people’s individual beliefs, but we certainly have a responsibility to intervene on a bad environment that’s pushing the wrong sets of beliefs. The thing is, other people matter. We matter to other people. Our explanations of our own success become judgments of other people--hence the runaway success of terribly maladaptive achievement beliefs like "only people born magical geniuses can succeed in STEM." I would probably put myself in that second category in John’s original question, sometimes to my own detriment because I think I could stand to enjoy success a little more. But I often try to see and speak about the relatively more intangible and hard-to-describe systemic impacts, because I think to myself, “how much more does a person need me to affirm that I can see this too?”


Plus, it leads to cool science. For example, entering new environments is an interesting moment to change these beliefs about success and a moment when we can have a dialogue about systemic factors you may not have thought about in past failures. Think about a time you have tried to motivate someone else or encourage them to see their own effort by telling them, maybe you had it rough in the past but…this is how it works here. One way that I’ve found this in my own research with developer teams is how much people pay attention to the cues about what is celebrated and what learning is shared. Awareness of systemic factors can actually be very motivating when it leads you to see that previous "failure" may actually have been a real success story in your own resilience, persistence, and survival. A lot of the current research projects I’m planning have to do with these intervention points.