STEVEN INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, let's talk about the power of positive, or not-so-positive, thinking. Not long ago on this program, we heard some research suggesting that student performance in class may be affected by what their teachers think of them. If the teacher gives off signals that the student is not a great student, the student will do worse. If the teacher gives off signals that the student is good, the student may well do better.

NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about social science research. He's been looking into a related finding. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're also looking into what students think about themselves. What did you find?

VEDANTAM: Well, I'm looking at something that looks like a paradox. So if you went to any school and you generally asked students, what subjects are you good at? the students who say they're good at science are generally, going to be the students who actually are good at science. The students who say they're good at math are generally, going to be good at math.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: Right? And educators have known for a long time that if you ask students what they're good at, it's a usually reliable predictor to what they're actually good at.

INSKEEP: Sure. They're getting grades, and they know what they're comfortable with, right.

VEDANTAM: Now, it turns out, however, that this relationship between beliefs and performance breaks down at an international level.

INSKEEP: What do you mean, it breaks down at an international level?

VEDANTAM: Well, researchers recently tracked about 350,000 students in about 14,000 schools, across 53 countries - massive, massive study. And it turned out that if you looked at individual countries and individual schools, this link between belief and performance held in each school, and in each country. However, when you compared students between countries, the relationship didn't hold.

So let me give you an example. Students in the United States, for example, performed less well in science than students in New Zealand or Australia or Sweden or Japan or Korea or Great Britain. But when you asked the students, how good do you think you are at science? students in the United States say they are better at science than students in those other countries.

INSKEEP: OK, so why would that be?

VEDANTAM: So I spoke with Wolfram Schulz; he's a researcher at the Australian Council for Educational Research. And he told me this is the result of a psychological illusion; which is, when you ask someone to judge themselves, the way they do it is they compare themselves with those who are immediately around them, right? The problem is, people have different reference groups in different countries.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: So if you look at somebody who is 5 foot, 10 inches tall, in China; and somebody who is 5 foot, 10 inches tall, in the Netherlands; they're the same height. But if you ask them, are you tall or short? they're probably going to give you very different answers in those two countries.

WOLFRAM SCHULZ: The person would, in China, probably think of themselves as a tall person. So you go to the Netherlands; such a person would, rather, say ah, I'm actually a short person - because you compare yourself to those who surround you.

VEDANTAM: So it's, you know, the little pond, big pond effect. And when you apply that to educational systems, it looks like some countries have more elite standards when it comes, for example, to science education. If you're a very good student in one of those countries, you're surrounded by lots of students who are really, really good. So you feel average. On the other hand, if you're in a country with lower standards, you could be decent. But when you compare yourself to those around you, you feel like a genius.

INSKEEP: So does that mean we should change our expectations?

VEDANTAM: Well, you know, like many of the findings of the social scientists, Steve, this one's complicated. And it's complicated because if students want to compete in a global marketplace, then yes, you actually want to have a very clear picture of how good you actually are. But there's a Catch-22 here. It isn't always helpful to have a perfectly accurate picture of how well you can do. And this is especially true, Schulz told me, when it comes to the subject of motivation.

SCHULZ: How you perceive yourself is actually more important than how much you know. If your general belief - you're not that good at science - that might have this powerful effect of saying, I'll better stay away from it in the future. You know?

INSKEEP: So being more brutally realistic about how good we are at science, might actually make us worse at science.

VEDANTAM: Well, the Catch-22, Steve, is that believing you are better than you actually are, can lull you into a sense of overconfidence when it comes to actual performance. But at the same time, believing that you're actually very good can motivate you to try a difficult subject that you might not have tried otherwise. And so what I take away from the study is that false beliefs are neither always a good thing, or always a bad thing. They're a tool. And what educators and parents need to do is to use the tool depending on the context - because false beliefs might help you when it comes to preparation; they might not be helpful when it comes to performance.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He's on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You can also follow this program @NPRGreene, @NPRInskeep and @MorningEdition.

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