I just read an interesting article (Shmader and Johns, Converging Evidence That Stereotype Threat Reduces Working Memory Capacity, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, Vol. 85, No. 3, 440 – 452) about why worrying about stereotypes can make women and other minorities perform poorly on tests. They gave subjects a test of working memory (matching equations and words). They were told this was a test of quantitative capacity. For half the subjects, they also said that gender differences in math performance could be related to differences in quantitative capacity. That created a condition called stereotype threat — the fear that your behavior is going to confirm existing negative stereotypes of your group.

They found that – for both women and latinos – the stereotype threat condition caused a decrease in working memory capacity. In the non-threat condition, women and men, latinos and whites performed equally on the task. Men’s and whites’ scores were not affected by the different conditions.

They wondered whether it was just that women and latinos became more anxious due to the threat condition and that this emotional response affected their test performance. That doesn’t seem to be the case — women didn’t become more anxious (though latinos did). Even if they’re not aware of feeling threatened, the mere presence of the negative stereotype may consume critical cognitive resources. Other research has shown that subjects show physiological signs of stress when under stereotype threat. Perhaps that interferes with the ability to remember items.

Myself, I know that when I’m in a position of stereotype threat (which happens all the time… I mean c’mon, I’m a woman physicist, and one with a relatively shoddy physics background at that) I become very aware of it. Just the other day I found myself the only woman in a room of men discussing gender differences in physics classes. I stayed quiet. I didn’t want anything I said to become indicative of “what women think.” I also find myself discussing physics with groups of men quite often. I’m very quiet in those conversations too. Of course, worrying about “looking stupid” is tied up with many other factors (my personal ego, the culture of physicists, group dynamics), but it’s also tied up with my gender, even if only implicitly. I’m not one of those super-brilliant female physicists. I’ve got my PhD, I’m no dummy, but I don’t compete well with the fast-and-furious discussions of physics. In part, I often feel I have fewer cognitive resources at my fingertips, and maybe that’s what this study is highlighting. I could participate in the physics discussions at a slower rate, with a book and some time to think about it. I don’t pull things out of my head if I haven’t been thinking about them recently, the way that I see the men around me do.