Another example of the importance of Murray's pioneering work on the need for achievement comes from research on how this need is demonstrated differently by men and women. It had been evident for many years that the expression of achievement was more acceptable for men than for women. It has only been in recent years that the issues surrounding the achievement of women have been investigated. It is clear that these issues, in general, have been experienced much differently by women from the way they have been experienced by men. The paths for understanding and expressing ideas of achievement for men and women clearly differ very early in life. A series of studies supports the idea that women with a high need for achievement come from relatively stressful and difficult home lives, whereas men with a similar level of achievement strivings come from supportive, nonstressful homes. Additionally, girls tend to evidence their needs for achievement because of a desire for adult approval, while boys do not demonstrate this motivation.
One of the more interesting, as well as distressing, findings regarding sex differences in the need for achievement comes from the research of Matina Horner. She found that women experience considerable conflict and distress when faced with their need to achieve, whereas men do not experience a similar state. She proposed that the "smart girl" faced the prospect of considerable loss of social status and peer rejection as a result of her strivings to achieve. This may result in the behavior of acting "dumb" in order to prosper socially. Horner elaborated on Sigmund Freud's original idea that women actually may fear success because of its social consequences.
In a famous study by Horner, she had men and women write a story after being given an opening line. The women were to write a story about a woman who found herself at the top of her medical school class after the first semester. The men had the same story, except that it was a man who was at the top of the class. Far more women wrote stories of the unappealing and sometimes tragic consequences for the smart woman in class. They wrote about possible rejections and losses of friends and indicated that she would have a poorer chance of getting married. Many of the women came up with situations related to removing the student from the conflict situation, such as dropping out of medical school or settling for becoming a nurse. Finally, some of the students even indicated that she might receive bodily harm as a result of her stellar performance.
The conflicting messages of society regarding achievement for women are clearly shown by this study. It is apparent that women face considerable struggles in their attempts to compete and achieve equally with men. The factors that will alleviate this internal distress and aid women in the full expression of their abilities await further investigation. It was Murray's pioneering study of human needs that laid the groundwork for these types of investigation, which have the potential to inspire long-overdue social changes.
Was this article helpful?