Women and the ‘I Don’t Know’ Problem

Studies show that women hold themselves to a higher level of certainty before they offer an opinion. That can affect polling results.

Comments: 80

  1. I had a college roommate who always replied, "I don't know" to just about anything I asked her and I found her lack of engagement absolutely maddening. As a woman, I have never lacked for an opinion on anything and if I am not familiar with a topic, I will research it online (I used to do this by reading books, newspapers and magazines at the library prior to the internet.) As a result, it is pretty hard to catch me not knowing what is happening nationally or internationally or beat me at Trivial Pursuit.

    Not having an opinion or being willfully ignorant is why our country is falling apart right now.

  2. Agreed. "I don't care" drives me batty, too.

  3. Having an opinion while being willfully ignorant is more like it.

  4. Often the male tendency to leap in with some kind of half-baked response--often quite noticeably half-baked--is annoying to all women present. But women who wait till they really, really, really, really feel strongly about something are only giving the men the opportunity to set into action things they haven't even thought through. Sometimes, too, women even police one another for seeming too opinionated, though maybe that mostly happens in conservative communities where men expect to be deferred to and women live in more or less constant anxiety about accidentally disagreeing with them if they don't wait to see what the men think first. Then disagreement becomes a matter of coaxing, waiting, and "hoping they come around." I'm speaking from very recent experience, actually, with a group of women who just this morning showed quite a bit of anxiety because I had been a little too outspoken for them and it made some of them imagine what would happen if their male relatives heard such a thing. Being able to speak forthrightly would seem to be the first goal of feminism, but in some places and some contexts it's apparently the final frontier.

  5. Most women I know are able to speak forthrightly when they have examined the evidence and how they feel about it. But they are reluctant to issue an opinion before doing what they consider due diligence.

  6. Most men would rather slit their throats than say "I don't know" about anything.
    All women know that on some level.

  7. '...Sometimes, too, women even police one another for seeming too opinionated...'

    There is no 'sometimes' about it. Women try to make sure other women stay in 'their place' and this happens even in NYC, although it is rarely a woman from NYC who would try to muzzle anyone, much less another NYC women.

    It is an insidious form of repression when women do this to other women, as it is when mothers raise their daughters to be submissive to men, crippling them from early childhood.

    In business meetings, it is clear which women were raised in this manner, as every opinion they offer, assuming they offer any opinion, is started with disclaimers, such as 'I don't know, but...' or 'I'm sorry, but...' or even 'It's not my place to say, but...'

    (I even see these types of disclaimers in comments in this paper, which is astounding, as taking the time to write your opinion, while letting others know in the first few words that they best disregard it is bizarre.)

  8. Polling companies don't like to ask questions that reveal how ill-informed respondents are, but studies have consistently shown that men are on average better informed about most kinds of public affairs other than local school board issues. So, when women reply, "I don't know," they are often telling the truth.

  9. Actually, the study cited in this article showed the reverse: that women were as likely to be correct as men about political questions, when pressed for an answer. They simply didn't offer an answer if they weren't 100 % sure.

    What I have noticed is that when a woman says, "I think you should turn left here," she means exactly the same thing as a man who says, "I'm certain you should turn left here." Men tend to think a woman is offering a mild opinion when she uses the term "I think," when in fact she wouldn't speak up unless she was 98% certain. (The "I think" part is often just to salve the man's ego when correcting him.)

  10. Except:

    "Studies show that women hold themselves to a higher threshold of certainty before they offer an opinion. In factual quizzes on political knowledge, women do as well as men, if you press them to give answers."

  11. And what studies "have consistently shown that men are on the average better informed..."?

    This is the kind of statement that leads people to making faulty conclusions because one person said without showing the premise on which it is based.

  12. Not surprising. Many also believe that this apparent difference between men and women is part of the reason why men rise farther and are paid more at work. Men are more likely to bluff and brag their way to a raise and promotion.

  13. The need to "be certain" before arriving at a decision, if it is indeed something more pronounced in women than in men (are we allowed any longer, by the way, to assert that women differ systematically from men in any way?) would likely effect behavior in the voting booth as well as with regard to polling. That is to say, the effect that this tendency might have on the accuracy of polling might be negligible, or significant, and we will have a difficult time knowing which.

  14. I'd say that it might affect undervotes somewhat, but otherwise there is no way to vote "don't know." And one does not often vote during dinner, while putting kids to bed, or at any other unexpected time.

  15. Too often people, the media especially, elicit judgements based on minimal evidence or research. Apparently the reply "I don't know" is a sign of weakness or indecision. Better to be decisive and wrong that to take the time to do the research before drawing a conclusion. Good thing we require juries to listen to all the evidence before rendering judgement. At least in principle it is the right thing to do.

  16. They've clearly never met my last girlfriend. She didn't care if she was correct but always needed to be right. I didn't win any points by countering her assertion that interracial marriage is still illegal in some states. The end came soon after I asked her to stop giving me play by plays from her uninformed Facebook debates with distant relatives about the war in Syria.

  17. I was just talking to a male colleague about this topic the other day. He was saying that males are trained to bluff and bluster because the best way to get ahead is pretend that you have knowledge and power even if you don't. They apparently also learn that if you are caught as a fake, to deny it, attack/blame the other person as a liar or crazy, or just apologize and say you'll never do it again.

    It explained a lot to me about male behavior. I'm sure some females also learn these lessons, but females usually get more socialization training and reinforcement to wait for some level of certainty including knowledge, approval, permission, facts, etc. before taking action or asserting opinion.

    The difference in socialization can be summarized by saying that men are often rewarded for showing self-confidence while women are more often rewarded for deference to others..

  18. '...women are more often rewarded for deference to others...'

    Unfortunately, it is not just men who expect women to show deference, but women pressure other women to 'be nice'.

    Fortunately, I live and work in NYC, where no one is expected to be nice, so it all evens out.

  19. In my house we call it "Male Answer Syndrome." It is interpreted as the inability for a man to admit his ignorance on any topic. We are still searching for the reason why women might respond with "I don't know," but I would posit that for women honesty trumps hubris, and that the preponderance of men in politics makes not knowing about politics a sensible viewpoint that a preponderance of men in politics manage to engender more real world problems than they solve.

  20. Wow, so can you list any negative qualities about women or are those only things men possess?

  21. @Kevin Stevens: We say "I don't know" when asked if women have any negative qualities.

  22. Boy, does this ring true. Just ask any telephone surveyer. Or college professor. But it is also absolutely true that women are dinged for speaking their mind. This is another one of those "darned if you do, darned if you don't" situations for women.

  23. I remember years ago , a longitudinal study was done with girls and boys. Initially,it done when they were about 9 years old and then a few years later at about age 12, 13. In the first part, the girls were much more aware of what they wanted. They had big dreams and goals. One wanted to be a surgeon, another a college professor. They were confident in themselves and were optimistic for the future. The boys initially were as thick as bricks. When asked about the future, their typical response was "I DON"T KNOW". When interviewed about 3 years later, there was a 180 degree change in the responses. Now the boys were confident, knew what they wanted to do a great deal more than before.But now, the girl who expressed a desire to be an surgeon,now was hoping to be a nurses assistant. The girls typically indicated they they didn't like themselves, thought they were fat, despite reality to the contrary. From my perspective, this may demonstrate what and how the larger culture does a disservice to young girls. Personally, I think women are more evolved than men, as a group, and i think that this could be a better world, if all head of state was a woman for 10 years, and I don't mean sarah palin.

  24. "I think women are more evolved than men", your quote Lance. A bit of sexism, what would you say if I said, Men are more evolved than women. You and the feminist would sting me up on the coconut tree in my garden.

  25. Pablo,

    And it's really hard to construct any sort of logical argument to support the idea that women are more evolved. To put it bluntly, if they were, they wouldn't be fighting for equality.

  26. The men in my husband's family were never hesitant. They "knew" and if they didn't, they made it up. They had big voices and convinced many who were listening. Really proved the point of this article.

  27. Problem? Says who?
    As an authoritative female, I see the problem differently: men feel uncomfortable if they don't have input. I listen first.

  28. Could "s/he who hesitates is lost" apply here?

  29. She who hesitates if lost only half the time, the other half of the time she will benefit from not making a poor choice like 50% of men do.

  30. "She who hesitates is bossed" is more like it.

  31. I would like "You must be kidding!" as a possible answer to some of the idiotic questions people ask. :D I really don't know....

  32. Phrasing a polling result as "Women do this more than that" ignores the fact that what is being discussed is an average, and many women do not conform to the average.

    This is so common as to seem ignorable, but in fact it conveys a highly misleading impression. Shall we say "Women are not good at X" just because that may be the average? I think not.

  33. Regarding the statement that "... women do as well as men, if you press them to give answers." If I'm reading the cited article correctly, this statement is incorrect. When pressed to give answers, the authors report that the gap between men and women was cut in half - not that it was eliminated.

  34. This is just a different way of saying women are smarter.

  35. It's not as simple as that Mike...on the surface it would seem to be true, but if women ruled the world nothing would get done. On important decisions the answer would be I don't know, whereas men will make a decision right or wrong.

  36. Hi Mike, are you available?!

  37. I'm an opinionated, well informed woman who tracks public affairs on a global level (@Stevie Sailer-I'm childless, thank Zeus, live internationally part-time, and could care less about what the school board is up to) and have spent a lifetime amused, watching men bloviate about things they have only the most superficial understanding of… Check out my favorite essay on the subject by the brilliant author Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174918/
    Speak up women, you can't possibly be less informed than most men.

  38. Well I don't know about this: my wife is never shy to give me her opinion, she steps up right away to tell me what she thinks of my friends, my taste and my political opinion. I believe it's called nagging.

  39. I believe that's called misogyny.

  40. She wouldn't do it if she wasn't convinced by the facts that she is right.

  41. What are the studies that show "women hold themselves to a larger threshold"? How many studies are included? How many people were in each study?

    This is a faulty analogy based on the information given.

  42. I read this somewhere: if a woman wants to learn about wine, she enrolls in a wine class to become an expert. If a man wants to learn about wine he buys a mixed case and drinks different types until he thinks he has it figured out, and then says he's an expert. A generalization, obviously, but I think it has some bearing here. As to asserting opinions, just call it the Fox-Limbaugh Effect. Decades of O'Reilly and Rush seem to have reinforced the notion that you don't have to have any idea of what you're talking about to have an opinion.

  43. An interesting array of comments here - many pretty far removed from the point of the article, so I'll join in, too.

    I'm struck by the fact that many of the comments seem to characterize the taking of a position, absent complete certainty as "bluffing" or "faking." The truth is that for many (maybe most) decisions in life, we can never be certain about what's right, because we can never have perfect information (is this the right candidate to vote for? is this the right person to marry? is this the right house to buy?). But sometimes, a decision MUST be made, and sometimes delaying a decision is, in effect, MAKING a decision (e.g., if I don't make the offer on the house, someone else may buy it).

    The challenge for pollsters is trying to figure out who's truly undecided about something and who has his/her mind pretty much made up, but just won't say it. The more important challenge is for decision makers, who have to figure out when they are sure enough to act, even though they aren't "certain."

  44. Doesn't sound like any of the women in my family...

  45. We used to say this about my brother, "Often in error but never in doubt." Apparently it is a common character trait among men.

  46. "Often in error but never in doubt."
    The data suggests that it is more of a Democratic trait than a difference between the sexes.

  47. to Eugene, surely you meant the GOP. They adhere to their erroneous believes more strongly than a barnacle to a rock (and maybe with as much objective thought as well). even just today, there are too many examples to fit into the character limit of this comment section

  48. For years, my colleagues and I at National Research Center, Inc. have been asking men and women across the U.S. about their local government. The vast majority of our surveys are self-administered (via the mail) and not by telephone interviews as is common among polling firms. Our findings do not support those reported by Ms. Kopicki. The self editing referred to by Mr. Krosnick occurs in women more than men when the demands of the interviewer may give a woman more pause to offer an uncertain opinion. When men and women have time and privacy, as they do for a self-administered questionnaire, they tend to show their uncertainty in equal porportions. This is one of many reasons that mailed surveys are in ascendance. You can request our findings at [email protected].

  49. this suggests that in the phone survey another variable is whether the interviewer was male or female. men and women talk to each other differently that when either is in a conversation with someone of the same sex.

  50. There is another way of looking at this: "Men and the 'Talk About Anything Without Informing Myself' Problem"

    It is more productive and time conservative (virtues that are, keeping Congress' recent performance review in mind, unique) to speak only on issues about which one is truly confident about.

    To speak about anything under the sun without being truly confident is to deliver the coals with the diamonds so to speak -- coals which we are made to tirelessly dig through, sometimes finding substance, sometimes finding nothing. When men speak about things they, often quite noticeably, know nothing about it is simply a waste of time and energy. This is an especially pertinent problem in the workplace and in topics of urgency like climate change. A switch the more efficient and so far effeminate code of conduct -- "if you haven't got something of value to say, don't say anything at all" --could be a worthy expedient to professional discussion.

    Instead of encouraging women to emulate men and speak up about issues about which we are ill-versed, we should all aspire to become more informed and more confident so that we may serve up our diamonds and our diamonds only.

  51. one way or the other way, does not in and of itself guarantee assertions that are factually correct, or that can be defended with evidence.
    Just because one feels informed, does not mean you are informed.
    You may have researched and informed your self, yet your opinion may still have no value.
    To be quite truthful, I have encounter as many women as men that talk at length about things they know nothing about, or that they are misinformed about.
    I think this an almost universal human trait, even I have at times done it. Less so as I get older - perhaps because real experience tempers.

  52. From a study by the Pew Research Center on April 15, 2007 that asked 23 factual questions:

    "Traditionally, men are more likely than women to say they closely follow politics and international affairs, and the results of the knowledge survey appear to reflect this divide. Nearly half of all men (45%) score in the top third, compared with 25% of women. Among those at the bottom third of the scale, women (42%) outnumber men (26%)."

    http://www.people-press.org/2007/04/15/public-knowledge-of-current-affai...

  53. Even a reading of the responses to this column is revealing, a little meta-study if you like. There are assertions that far exceed those of the author, but expressed with great confidence on the basis of anecdote, not study, and values placed on either the willingness to assert an opinion, or on the importance of deliberation and caution. My (firmly held, after all I'm male) opinion is that there is a need to value both approaches, that more men would benefit from a less opinionated manner, but that more women could be encouraged to have the conviction of their beliefs.

  54. George W. Bush was the ultimate example of this: when faced with no evidence, or even ample contrary evidence, he would reach his desired conclusion and ignore everything else. Did this trait arise while he was president, or did it help him to become president? Either way, it's pretty scary.

  55. Where do I go to sign up to become one of the people who has enough time, energy and resources to worry about a ridiculous "problem" like this. Apparently, many readers of the Times fit this category, and I wish some of them would get in touch with me. Engaged as I am in a daily battle for basic survival in zip code 75223, it would be nice to meet up with people who live on another planet.

  56. Make that "have" enough time.

  57. This article lacks context to better understand the problem in question. It is insufficient to say that, "studies show that women hold themselves to a higher threshold of certainty before they offer an opinion." Certainly there are men who are more circumspect than others in speaking on subjects on which they are ignorant. And certainly there are women who are full of unwarranted self confidence who are willing to offer their opinions. These studies have shown differences in the average, but cannot predict individual behavior. How big is the difference in the "average" willingness to offer uninformed opinions? I wish the article had explained this. Furthermore, to call this the "I don't know" problem of women is as unfounded. Why isn't this considered to be a problem of ignorant PEOPLE (evidently more often men than women) who speak out of turn? If there is a socialization component that contributes to the gender difference in willingness to speak in spite of ignorance, this should be explored and remedied in a way that leads people to develop an appropriate reluctance to publicly display their ignorance, while developing the self confidence needed to voice informed opinions.

  58. This happens in science and engineering - a super successful scientist friend told me that she and her girlfriends grad students, at a university and a department to remain unnamed, trained themselves to appear more confident than they felt, just like the guys. They were all very good but their careers got an extra help from this.

    I wish we could ask the linguist Deborah Tannen about this phenomenon.

  59. Okay, the term "mansplaining" has to go. It's offensive and irresponsible.

  60. A woman I know had a job waiting tables in a Wall Street-area restaurant while working on her MBA. One night as she brought a table of men their drinks she asked them what line of work they were in. One of them responded "OK, let me dumb it down for you," and went on to talk about his job in finance as if to a first-grader. I agree - that's offensive and irresponsible, and it has to go.

  61. Thanks for explaining that.

  62. I actually found it one of the best parts of the article! There is absolutely no reason why anything in this article should be found offensive.

  63. Why are phone surveys still done? Surely you can't get a representative sample of people when you interrupt their daily routines to ask them totally random questions on subjects they never contemplate.

  64. The headline should actually read, "Men and the 'I Know Everything' Problem."

  65. For gods' sake yes! Enough with these stupid headlines implying all these types of stories are about problems with women rather than men.

  66. Actually, the problem IS with the women respondents. When they acted like the men, they were guessing more correct answers. So, no, it shouldn't be the other way around.

  67. @keithmessina: why is "guessing the correct answer" the thing being valued? Why isn't the value seen as "being thoughtful" or "being confident enough to acknowledge what you are not sure of"? Your construct exemplifies the problem, by presuming the male norm as the desirable one. The survey is not a test on which participants are being graded (where making a good guess would have value) rather it seems to be an effort to ascertain the level of actual knowledge. Rewarding "good guesses" is not inherent to that purpose.

  68. I work in the architecture/engineering field. For offering my educated opinion and consultation on projects in my expertise I have: had a colleague throw a crumpled piece of paper at my face, a supervisor stomp his foot temper-tantrum style and scream "Why won't you listen to me!?", and pulled aside by a technician who told me he refused to do any more work for me, because I made more money than him (even though I had more education and experience). At the end of the day, most women just want to keep their jobs and will silence themselves. We're conditioned to cooperate and be agreeable.

  69. Does this explain why Karl Rove was so eager to opine on Mrs. Clinton's head injury, a topic that apparently he knows nothing about? However, I suspect if you polled American women on what they thought about the GOP thought leaders attacking Mrs. Clinton on the basis of her age and health, they would reply with considerable knowledge based certainty.

  70. The comments are more interesting than the article. Seems to be general agreement that the phenomenon exists (note, I have not statistically analyzed the comments so cannot answer with certainty). We only disagree on which is better: to charge ahead confidently, whether you know what you are talking about or not, regardless of the consequences, or to potentially risk missing an opportunity by taking the time to make a well-informed decision. (or chosing to not make a decision because inadequately informed)

    Perhaps we need to apply these differing qualities constructively. As I am a woman, in general, my standard of quality is high, my tolerance for failure is low, and I accept that I may be missing some opportunities as a result. In my case, for example, in those areas of my life where I would like a degree of certainty, (like advice about my health, or my money), I might prefer to seek a woman's advice. In others, perhaps a man's advice would be more useful? (not coming up with anything where charging ahead without informing myself first would make sense, but don't want to be sexist and dismiss the idea without giving it due consideration...and able to accept that others may prefer a different degree of uncertainty or risk in their decision making, male or female.)

  71. Whatever happened to us appreciating the value of Mark Twain's observation "It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt."

  72. We have all been annoyed by a know it all man (or boy.) In their mind there is one correct answer, their own, and the discussion just becomes an artificial competition that they must win. They use that little win to boost a weak ego.

    I have also seen many women withhold information, opinion, or what they really feel about something for strategic purposes. This seems to be their natural 'auto pilot.'

    Clearly men need to loose the bad habit, but I think we are also missing some valuable information from women.

  73. I think women do not speak out as much because they have been well taught by society and experience that our male dominated society offers not much more than ridicule, ignorance, condescension and blatant denial of the idea (regardless of its merits because it was brought up by a women). As a female EE I have experienced much of this. It really gets tiring.

  74. A personal anecdote that confirms this finding. When I was in graduate school, a professor contacted me to ask whether I would be willing to tutor two undergraduate on a special topic (a semi-independent study) related to my area of research. I said I'd be happy to tutor them, but that I didn't know much about one particular sub-topic. If they wanted to study that sub-topic, I would have a hard time helping them. The professor wrote back a few days later to say that he had found someone who was comfortable with the whole topic; my services would not be needed. So be it. Later that semester, I bumped into these two undergraduates at a conference on our topic. I happened to know one from a volunteer program we had both participated in; we got to talking, and I soon realized that she and her friend were the two undergraduates in question. I told them I had come very close to tutoring them on their topic, and asked how the semester was going. They said, "We've been on our own all semester. Our tutor basically doesn't know anything. Today is our last day to consult faculty, and tomorrow we have to start working on our research papers. We're in a panic, and that's why we've come to this conference." I was floored. Their tutor had gotten the job because he had expressed complete confidence in his knowledge of the subject! I was so eager to talk and they to learn about my area of research, that we met later that day for a review session, for which they were grateful.

  75. As in the 'science' of polling, the 'science' of how men and women respond to polls or questions about what their opinion may be on various topics doesn't really seem like science at all. In some instances, the tendency may be for most men to " comfortably hold forth on topics they have little experience on" but the details may reveal that by "most" we may be referring to 51% or simply replaying Ms. Kay's and Ms. Shipman's anecdotal experience. I can say from personal experience (entirely unscientific) that the tendency of both men and women to talk confidently about topics they know very little about or blather on for an eternity as to their opinions on some issue without any relative factual content seems to me to be fairly equal. It is the rare person, without regard to gender, who will respond "I don't really know much about that" when it comes to their opinions. Most people seem to revel in the opportunity to demonstrate their ignorance and will become quite angry whenever they are challenged as to their perceptions or beliefs. You can try to make this a man/woman thing but I just don't see it. Again, not science or fact, simply what I have observed among my statistically small circle of friends, coworkers and family.

  76. I think part of what is missing in this discussion is risk taking. Men do learn by taking the risk of saying something is so, and then being wrong. Men have mistaken women's silence for not knowing, so when they do speak (and add words to reduce certainty) men don't understand that it was well thought out.

    From a global and human history perspective feminism is still the frontier.

  77. I understand this perfectly. You could ask my husband a question about anything and he would come up with what seemed on the surface to be a reasonable answer, even when he didnt really know. If I was asked the same question, I would be upfront, saying I don't know or I'm not sure.
    I dont know if all men are like this, but he just was not able to say he didnt know something. Perhaps men just say what comes in to their minds while women need to think it out more analytically.

  78. In human biology, the phenomenon is known as "sexual crypsis", the use by women of hiding or obscuring (in this case, their fertility status, but the principle is larger than that).

    Modern feminism has made it nearly impossible to discuss sexual crypsis (crypsis makes itself cryptic) but it has an impact on everything from women obscuring their ages and weight to answering poll questions. This is universal human norm, NOT a societal thing, as some cryptic women assert.

  79. Taking a wild guess, and thought fully considering a question, will both result in a "wrong" response, if they are based on ignorance, naivety, or false assumptions.
    One cannot in fact make wild guesses, all guesses are predicated on personal experience, etc.
    Thinking carefully on a subject is pointless if one is not well informed, or informed in falsehoods.

    In my personal and entirely anecdotal experience, both men and women freely demonstrate their ignorance, almost no one ever says "I don't know."

    But then, what do I know.

  80. I agree. Humility is not really a value most people hold currently. I personal only talk about things I know about. Or if pressed to try to use logic from something I know is true or at least pretty certain is true. I have noticed that when I do say "I don't know" when talking about a subject, whoever I am talking to want to know more about what I don't know. In reflection, this seems really obvious.