Friday, January 22, 2016

Learning! Stereotype Threat

Every once and a while, I like to put on my "I got an undergrad degree in psychology and therefore like to talk about psych theories a lot" hat.  This is one of those times, and this time I want to talk about Stereotype Threat.

What is Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype Threat is when a person unconsciously confirms a stereotype about themselves after being reminded of it.  The most commonly cited example of this (probably because it's been researched a lot) is women and math.  Cue a woman to think about her gender before doing a math test, and she instantly performs less well both than men and than she would have without that reminder.

The incredible thing is that these stereotypes are so pervasive that testers don't even have to bring them up explicitly.  All you need to do is prime a person to think about their gender and, if they are a woman, they will fill in the blanks.

Some of the tested Stereotype Threats include women and math, black people and performance on standardized tests, white people with regards to appearing racist, poverty and intelligence, men and social sensitivity, Christians and anti-science sentiments.

These are just the ones that have published research based on them, but let's think of every stereotype we can, and then imagine how many of the affected people are living into those stereotypes based on this.  Kind of scary, right?

Stereotype Threat doesn't stop at making women bad at math and men less socially sensitive, though. It causes us to self-sabotage in those areas by devaluing them and thus practicing less.

A person doesn't even have to believe the stereotype about themselves for Stereotype Threat to work on them, because just being reminded that other people expect you to be racist or to be worse at standardized testing will cause enough anxiety to help you confirm it.  Basically, you wind up spending enough mental energy worrying whether you will come across in a way that confirms a stereotype instead of just performing the task, that you wind up confirming it.

What do we do about it?  

We can try to avoid reminding people of the stereotypes held against them, especially in sensitive areas.  If you are a teacher, you can also stress that intelligence and performance are learned and that anyone can master a skill if they work at it.  Another study has shown that having students write about something they value can help overcome Stereotype Threat.


Sources:
Reducing Stereotype Threat
Christians Are Bad at Science When You Remind Them A Lot of People Think Christians Are Bad at Science
Wikipedia

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