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Insecurity and Judgement at Lecture

Veena Thomas

Ever think that you are the dumbest person at MIT? Or perhaps you think that you are the smartest person here. I wouldn’t be surprised.

It’s inevitable -- students arrive here fresh out of high school, used to being the smartest person in all of their classes. They don’t know proper studying habits, because they never needed to study before. It’s not their fault. Though told how difficult college will be, no one quite understands the magnitude of such a statement.

Some students arrive here in August, knowing abstractly that everyone else here is in the same intellectual place that they are. It takes the first problem set to begin sinking in the reality of college. Or perhaps it’s after they take the first test and, used to scoring 99 on everything in high school, realize that they’ve only gotten a 42. “Well, maybe it’s class average,” they think, suddenly hoping to at least fall in the middle of the pack but class average is 65.

This kind of rude awakening affects everyone differently. It’s usually sufficient to drive home reality and to break down someone’s ego. These people, humbled by the experience, work harder on subsequent tests to prove to themselves that they can still do well. These people decline to discuss grades, and ask for help when they know that they need it.

Others are so shocked by the experience and so threatened that they retreat into “High School Superstar” mode. Such people feel so lost in the shuffle that they continuously assert that once, somewhere, in Smalltown, USA, they were somebody. Incessant bragging about their high school water polo days and how good they were annoys everyone in earshot. It also reveals them as shocked and threatened to anyone willing to analyze them.

A third class of people is shamed by their poor test results. Realizing, deep down underneath, that they may not be the smartest person here, they develop an insecurity complex. This usually manifests itself in quite the unexpected way. Instead of acting really weak and insecure, such people instead crow about how smart they are, how quickly they finished their work, and how simple their classes are. They tell everyone they know how they thought the last test was easy, and they compare grades with their classmates. It’s almost as if they believe that by saying something enough times, it will become true.

I’m not the only one who has contemplated this phenomenon. On the first day of Social Psychology (9.70), this term, the professor stood up in front of the classroom and asked a question. Predictably, no one responded. “Why is no one responding?” he asked, and we began to analyze it. Everyone had a different reason. Some didn’t want to share information about themselves so quickly, while others wanted to hear what everyone else had to say. However, the words of one student rang truest.

“There’s a lot of tension in an MIT classroom, especially on the first day,” she said. “No one wants to appear stupid in front of everyone else. When the TA would ask if anyone had any questions in recitation, no one would raise their hand. I had questions, but I didn’t want to look stupid, so I would just ask the TA after class.”

Her words heartened me, as the rest of the class agreed. They knew the feeling -- sitting in class, convinced that everyone else knows exactly what is going on except for you. Someone in the class commented that at times everyone feels like the stupidest person on campus. In reality, though, the situation is quite different. If everyone assumes that each other student understands all of the material perfectly, and they are the only ones that don’t, no one asks questions, thus perpetuating the myth.

Leaving 9.70, I felt much better about MIT classrooms. After all, if a classroom full of 40 students could have a fruitful discussion about their worries and fears, then surely almost all students felt the same way. I shouldn’t worry about asking questions, I thought to myself, because no one’s really going to judge me by the questions I ask. It’s all just a fear, but in reality nobody actually cares if people ask questions, I convinced myself. I hadn’t counted on some of my fellow biology majors.

I attended a review session for 7.06, two days before the test. I wasn’t really sure what was going on sometimes, but I knew it was because I hadn’t started my hard-core studying yet. I learned a lot during the review session. Of course, I had questions, but I knew they would be easily answered once I studied. I certainly wasn’t going to raise my hand and ask such questions, so I figured that if I studied, and still had questions, I would ask someone. In the meantime, I would use the review session as a social psychology experiment, and watch others.

The same few people asked numerous questions, while the rest of the class sat and listened. Some of the questions were helpful, such as requests to explain a specific concept. Others were questions seemingly off the point, or just far beyond the level expected for the test. I started to drift off.

At the very end, someone who I thought knew exactly what was going on, from the level of questions she was asking, raised her hand again. This time her question was far simpler. Aha, I thought, this girl has guts. She’s not afraid to ask any question at a review session. I admired her -- she wanted to know something, so she asked. (Why I can’t admit that I don’t know something in a classroom of 100, yet will admit it in a newspaper read by the entire MIT population, I have no idea.)

The professor answered her question -- it was quite an important point which would surely be covered on the test -- and then told the entire class that it was also discussed in the reading, in case anyone was still confused. Shortly after, he concluded the review session.

I walked outside, only to hear two students behind me, quite upset. “Read the f---ing book, and don’t ask such questions at a review session,” one of them said. My faith in the nonjudgmental nature of others shattered. Someone had a question, and asked it. That’s absolutely no reason to use profanity against them, or even to be so angry.

Some people are so insecure that they constantly need to prove how much smarter they are than everyone else. It’s as if they doubt their intelligence unless someone else knows about how “smart” they are. To these people, I can only say this: you’re not the smartest one here, and you’re no better than anyone else. Get over it. Talking about how smart you are doesn’t make you more intelligent. It takes a far stronger person to admit they don’t know something than it does to judge those willing to admit it.