Subliminal 'Noise Generator' Tricks Women Into Professional Self-Promotion


Entire books have been written recently about how women need to be more assertive in the workplace. But how do we actually get women to do this en masse? A recent study, published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly asked 60 female college freshmen to write an essay about their personal accomplishments. To reflect the reality that learning to self-promote in a natural manner is rewarded in the professional world, a panel issues monetary prizes of up to $5000 for essays where one’s achievements came across the best.

The study’s researchers, led by Jessi L. Smith, professor of psychology at Montana State University, and former student Meghan Huntoon, expected most of the women to do poorly on this assignment out of not wanting to seem arrogant by self-promoting. So they invented a “black box” to help certain women get over this fear:

One group of about 20 students were placed in a room with a 3-ft. by 3-ft. box, which they were told was “a subliminal noise generator.” The noise this machine made was too high for humans to hear, participants were informed, but it nevertheless sometimes caused discomfort. Oddly, the students who wrote their self-promotional essays in that room were awarded up to $1,000 more for their essays than students in the other rooms.

The twist was that the “subliminal noise generator” wasn’t actually real. However, when the study’s participants believed that their nervousness was due to the distraction that that box supplied, and not their fear of being immodest, then they felt more comfortable about self-promoting.

While the sample size was small, this study provides a compelling idea for taking away the obstacles that prevent most women from self-promoting, and thus getting promotions. Besides the obstacle of seeming too proud, researchers investigated how the strength that women commonly exhibit in praising their colleagues. It turns out that the 20 women who were asked to talk up their friends did so easily, providing another way to encourage equal opportunity advancement in the workplace.

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