Love or Science? A Young Woman’s Dilemma

A recent series of research studies found that women are lured away from math and science by their desire for romance.  This research is fascinating on two levels.  First, because it highlights a difference between the genders as researchers found that women, but not men, would express less motivation to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math if they were prompted to think about romantic goals.

Secondly, because the study used simple images and overheard conversations to stimulate different goals (romantic goals vs. intelligence goals,) it highlights how easily our motivation can be influenced by subtle cues in our environment that we may not even be aware of.

The researchers’ hypothesis came from investigating the reason why, in spite of greater-than-ever gender equality in our society, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math continue to be predominantly male endeavors.  The researchers hypothesize that when women are prioritizing their goals for romance (as many young college age women are likely to do) they would steer away from career decisions that might lead them to traditionally masculine workplace roles.

I’m not sure I agree with this hypothesis, but it would be easy enough to test to see if the same finding can be found in men who are prompted to think about romance and then evaluated for their preference to pursue nursing or teaching careers.  I suspect there may be other factors at play.

Regardless, the most interesting part of this research is what it tells us about goal activation and pursuit.  These studies support other research that has been done on how exposure to certain objects, images or settings can influence how goals get prioritized and pursued.  People who are exposed to business paraphernalia, (briefcases vs. backpacks for example) tend to be more competitive and less generous.  You can imagine how being surrounded by these cues in an office setting could change your behavior in substantial ways. Another study found that people exposed to an Apple logo demonstrated more creativity than those exposed to an IBM logo. 

In psychology circles, this is known as “priming”—exposing someone to a subtle stimulus, which has been programmed through previous exposure to change intentions and behavior.  Subtle, but powerful . . . and kind of scary when you think about how your free will could be manipulated. 

But people can also use priming for their own personal benefit to focus and amplify their own goal pursuits.  I learned about this research from goals expert Caroline Miller, author of “Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide,” who suggests using primes as a deliberate way to take control of your own motivation and behavior, and get the results you want. 

“I’ve found in my client practice and study of the research that too often, people are asleep at the wheel in their own lives,” Miller says.  “They know that they have their behavior and moods altered by movies, pictures and songs, but they aren’t always sure how the environment might be causing them to do things they don’t want to do, so I help them identify places where they can deliberately insert a prime that will make them more focused or determined.”

One example of how she uses primes to help her clients is by encouraging people to power up their passwords and email addresses by choosing words that reflect the values, goals or states of being they want to accomplish.  Typing this word every day is a subtle reminder that helps keep those values at the forefront of the mind.

Another sophisticated way that Miller uses primes deliberately to increase the likelihood of goal accomplishment is by using “implementation intentions” (I covered implementation intentions in a previous article here.)  This means planning in advance how you will accomplish your objectives and then tying primes to those implementation steps.  An example of this would be to remember to floss your teeth every time you see your toothbrush.

For her clients that need help focusing on the positive, Miller tells them to use a cue from their environment as a prime.  Every time they see a stop sign, for example, they should think of three things they are grateful for.  (Try it!)

These are called “if-then” scenarios, and although they are consciously created by the person, they have just as powerful an impact as the subconscious romantic priming that may be undermining women’s pursuit of math and science aims.  As Caroline Miller says, the trick is to seize control of your life by knowing what is impacting your behavior, and then doing something in a proactive way to get the outcome you want.

References and Recommended Reading:

Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2011). Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. Sterling.

Park, L. E., Young, A. F., Troisi, J. D., & Pinkus, R. T. (2011). Effects of Everyday Romantic Goal Pursuit on Women’s Attitudes Toward Math and Science in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(9):1259.

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9 Responses to Love or Science? A Young Woman’s Dilemma

  1. David M. Carter August 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm #


    You’ve done it again! You’ve hit upon a hugely impactful topic; psychological priming and its association with human cultural adaptation. As you point out, priming can influence intention and behavior. A fascinating 2009 study by Maio, (Changing, Priming, and Acting on Values: Effects via Motivational Relations in a Circular Model) has shown the influence of priming on values. What’s particularly interesting about the study is that value priming was shown to significantly increase self-enhancement values (power, achievement, hedonism) while, at the same time, significantly decreasing self-transcendent values (benevolence, universalism, tradition). This finding eerily reflects related findings in Self-Determination Theory research, where an over-emphasis on extrinsic values/motivations can diminish a person’s ability to identify with intrinsic values/motivations (this was one of the biggest take-aways from MAPP for me).

    Similarly, evolutionary psychological work on human adaptation dovetails nicely with the priming aspects of social structure (i.e. culture). From this research, we can see how consumer culture, and the advertising that powers it, primes our values, attitudes, intentions, and actions. And, at the same time, exposure to consumer culture can diminish self-transcendent and intrinsic values, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. And we wonder why everything seems to be falling apart.

    Fascinating stuff! Thanks Jeremy.

  2. Katie Curran August 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Jeremy and David,

    WOW! My mind is spinning with ideas as well as questions. As usual, I am pondering how all of this brilliant information is relevant and place out in the lives of people with autism. There must be ways that I can shift to priming from external motivators in an attempt to increase intrinsic motivation./?

    I love that I can count on you to make my mind spin on topics I may not otherwise take the time to stop and think about! Thanks for the amazing work you are doing on spreading the word Jeremy!!


  3. Jeremy McCarthy August 24, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    David and Katie,

    I wasn’t sure how many people would “get” the impact of this article so I’m glad you guys did. David I totally agree with you. We are incentivizing the wrong things in our society. People have completely forgotten that money is only as good as its ability to get you things that really matter.

    Thanks Katie, I hope these ideas prove useful for your work in the autism community!
    Thank you both for reading!

  4. Monterey Hotels September 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Wow, I really like the if this then that part for my own life. I can see it helping me in my personal life as well as professionally. Also to use the cues as simple things like passwords. It kind of reminds me of when I was goal setting in high school and wrote my goals on paper and taped them to the bunkbead above me as a reminder. It was the first thing I read in the morning and the last thing I read at night. It will be interesting to try these ideas out.

  5. Marie-Josee Shaar October 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Very interestingly, I met a successful divorce attorney at lunch today (my marriage is fine, thanks for asking – it was at a women in business event!). She sees divorce cases all day long, and has done so for over 30 years. And her conclusion about gender differences through divorce is that in general, men are most concerned with keeping their money, whereas women are most concerned with preserving the relationship. Of course that’s not true of everyone all the time, but of most people most of the time. More food for thought, right?

  6. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) October 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    I wrote a follow up article to this one (on “Why Men are better than Women at Math”) which talked about how many of these gender differences are situational or cultural and not genetic. Your comment would make sense since culturally we tend to evaluate a man’s success more by his job and earning potential and at least historically, women are more likely to be rated successful based on their success as a wife and mother. The challenge is to break through these cultural norms to reach our full potential on both sides.

  7. groumemutrado July 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, parrots – who do you prefer? Or perchance what that non-native animals – snakes, crocodiles, lizards, monkeys?


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