A new study from researchers at the University of Indiana shows that women have grown wily to the effects of stereotypes. When faced with positive and negative stereotypes related to performance, they identify with the positive, avoiding the psych-out effects of the negative.
Take the mathematics stereotype, for example. Previous studies have shown that women perform worse on mathematical tasks if they’re only aware of the negative stereotype that women are weaker at math than men. In this study, however, lead researcher Robert Rydell took the analysis a step further by asking: what would happen if women were made aware of a positive stereotype at the same time as the negative?
The study included four experiments in which female undergraduate students were asked to perform difficult math problems. Some of the students were made aware only of the negative stereotype, that women are worse at math than men. Some of the students were only made aware of a positive stereotype, that college students perform better at math than non-college students. Some of the students were made aware of both stereotypes. And the final group was given no information at all. Between 57 and 112 new female students were used for each experiment.
The results: In all four experiments, women who were made aware of only the negative stereotype performed worse on the math problems than women from all other groups. The reason for this effect, identified in this and past studies, is that negative stereotypes steal working memory resources. The power of the stereotype is self-fulfilling — the worse you’re told you’ll do, because “everyone knows [your gender / ethnic / racial / socioeconomic group] can’t do this well,” then the worse you’re likely to do.
The new finding of this study is that the women who were presented with both the negative and positive stereotypes did not suffer from a working memory deficit, and thus didn’t perform worse on the math problems. In other words, the presence of the positive stereotype neutralized the negative’s effects.
One takeaway from this study is that, as consistently shown in research, negative stereotypes are powerful. If unchallenged, they will negatively affect performance. But when experienced alongside an equally potent positive stereotype, the negative loses its steam because we become more motivated to align ourselves with the positive.
The problem, of course, is that in the real world we’re not in control of the stereotypes that come at us. But we are in control of our reactions. So maybe the grand takeaway from this study is that when faced with a negative stereotype, immediately think of a positive one that applies to you as well and work one against the other. If you can neutralize the negative, it’ll scurry off and let you get on with the tasks at hand at full power.
Rydell, R., McConnell, A., & Beilock, S. (2009). Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (5), 949-966 DOI: 10.1037/a0014846