I’m siting right now in a fascinating meeting for my physics education group, and we’re hearing about research on stereotype threat, which I’ve written about before. Stereotype threat is the idea that when you spark cultural stereotypes (like “girls aren’t good at math”) then those people get very stressed about their performance, feeling that however they do (say, on a math test) will reflect poorly on their group (women).  That makes them perform worse on that task than they might.

It turns out that if you give women the same test and say that it’s not diagnostic of their ability (for instance, by saying that it’s just a pilot test and you’re looking for feedback to improve it), then women and men do similarly on the test.  That’s because women don’t feel threatened in that case, it’s a low-stakes test.

Similarly, when you tell subjects that men and women perform differently on the test, women score worse.  You’ve made them aware of the stereotype by doing that.

Interestingly, when you tell subjects that men and women perform the same on the test, women score better and men score worse (closing the gap between their scores)!  For some reason, when men feel that they’re not getting some advantage from their gender, they don’t perform well.

They’ve seen similar results with:

  • The elderly and memory. (Flash words like “senile” and “florida” to bring the stereotypes to the forefront of their mind, and they’ll score worse on a memory test)
  • White men can’t jump (Remind men of stereotypes of race and athletic ability and white men won’t jump as high.  If a black experimenter is present and provides feedback on jumping ability, white men will improve less than black men.  That doesn’t happen if there’s a white experimenter.)
  • Asian men and math. (Remind people of the stareotype that asians are better at math, and white men do worse on math problems
  • Poverty and test performance (Remind people that economically disadvantaged people do worse on tests, and they will handily uphold the stereotype).

They’ve done some work to see how understanding and knowledge of this stereotype threat can be used to help close the gap between some of these traditionally lower scoring groups.  Psychological processes can have a significant impact on students’ performance — we need to be aware of that as teachers, and address it.  They did some work on mentorship, for example, and found that motivation is fairly malleable based on whether the mentor gave strict negative criticism, vs negative criticism that’s buffered with positive feedback.  The positive feedback appeared to help.  Sparking students’ positive ideas about themselves also seem to help.  Basically, it is important to highlight factors other than the stereotype that are relevant in performance.