Men (And Masculine Women) More Likely To Overestimate Their Intelligence, Study Finds


Dr. Katie Spalding

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer


Must be nice. Image: Khosro/Shutterstock

If you’re reading this (and we’re pretty sure you are) there’s a fair chance you consider yourself a bit … well, a bit more intelligent than the average person. Actually, there’s a pretty good chance you’d think that even if you weren’t reading this: studies pretty consistently show that most people think they’re smarter than average, and mathematics be damned.

But exactly how much brainer than everybody else we are – or, at least, we think we are – varies from person to person. And in news that will shock … well, not that many people, actually, there’s one type of person who overestimates their intelligence more than everyone else: men. That's according to a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.


“Despite people’s overall tendency to overestimate their own intelligence, individuals vary,” wrote David Reilly in a recent article for The Conversation. He’s a researcher in applied psychology at Australia’s Griffith University, and lead author of the study investigating what’s been called the “male hubris, female humility” effect.

“In general … when asked to estimate their IQ, men think they’re significantly brighter than they are, while women’s estimates are far more modest,” explained Reilly. “Our findings are consistent with those of other studies [and it’s] true of many cultures.”

The study went pretty much as you would expect: the 228 study participants were asked what they thought their IQ was, and then they completed an IQ test to measure it objectively. That wasn’t all, though: the researchers also presented them with a slew of questionnaires covering demographic information, self-esteem, and, importantly, sex-role identification – in other words, how “masculine” or “feminine” the participants were.

“We had a hypothesis that psychological gender (specifically masculinity) would be a better predictor of self-estimates than biological sex (male or female at birth),” Reilly explained.


An interesting idea – but would the results bear it out? Well, the answer is a resounding … kind of. As expected, biological sex definitely played a big part in predicting whether an individual would under- or over-estimate their IQ – but it wasn’t the only factor at play. See, while the average woman in the study underestimated her IQ by more than six points, there were some who didn’t suffer this crisis of confidence: specifically, those women who had returned a higher “masculine” personality score.

“[B]iological sex remained the strongest factor: males rated their intelligence as higher than females,” Reilly explained. “However, psychological gender was also a very strong predictor, with highly masculine subjects rating their intelligence higher (importantly, there was no association with femininity).”

“There was also a strong contribution of general self-esteem to participants’ intellectual self-image,” he added – and, as study after study has confirmed, men pretty consistently report higher self-esteem levels than women.

But the real million-dollar question – at least for the authors – is how to combat the effect itself. The cause of the hubris-humility issue may be “complex and nuanced, with no single cause emerging but rather … a number of contributing factors,” explains the study, but its result has deep real-world impacts.


“When girls undervalue their intelligence in school, they tend to choose less challenging course content – especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM subjects),” wrote Reilly. “These decisions limit their education and career choices after school.”

Even if you don’t care about diversity or equality, that’s a bad thing: it holds back scientific progress, stymies economic success, and in extreme cases could result in unnecessary deaths.

“We need to lift girls’ aspirations if they are to go on to solve the complex problems our society faces, while achieving equal pay,” concluded Reilly. “It starts early with gendered parental expectations of intelligence, and differences in self-esteem between boys and girls.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if, as parents, educators and a society, we could build the confidence of girls and young women to a level where they believe in themselves and are free of those doubts?”


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