Those Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

You may recall that we were recently discussing stereotypes as a result of an earlier post. Particularly, I was talking about the effects those sterotypes can produce as a result of modifying the expectations of others, making it hard for some people to be taken seriously, and resulting in them having to go that extra mile (or several) as a result.

Well, I’d like to point your attention to a recent study about the direct effects of those stereotypes on the stereotyped. Quoting from an article by AP science writer Randolph E. Schmid:

[Steven J.] Heine and doctoral student Ilan Dar-Nimrod wanted to see how people are affected by stereotypes about themselves. They divided more than 220 women into four groups and administered math and reading comprehension tests between 2003 and 2006. Their results are reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

What they actually did was to provide the different groups with different images and reading materials before they did the tests. They seem to have found significant differences in the results that suggest that having a negative stereotype of yourself in mind actually makes things worse. In other words:

It’s a process psychologists call a stereotype threat, Heine explained. “If a member of a group for which there is a negative stereotype is in a position to test the stereotype, they are likely to choke under the pressure.”

So reminding them of the stereotype affects them.

Here’s what they found:

The women in the lower-scoring groups read essays that either contended that there is a genetic difference between men and women in math ability, or discussed the images of women in art — a reading which did not discuss math but was designed to remind them of being female.

Those two groups not only fell short of the other women, but their performance declined between the two math tests, meaning they scored lower after reading the essays than before.


On the other hand, reading essays that contend there is no natural difference between men and women in math skills lets them go ahead and answer the questions without any added pressure.

And that was also the case with those reading essays arguing that any differences aren’t their fault, but exist because of conditions such as teachers giving boys preferential treatment in the early years of learning math.

That, explained Heine, “may allow a woman to say, ‘This stereotype doesn’t apply to me.'”

How much better did they do?

The women who did better in the tests got nearly twice as many right answers as those in the other groups….

Heinie is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

This is certainly very interesting to me (and not surprising), and it is good to see that such a study was done. I’d also like to see results on studies done to look at simialr effects in other groups that are not “supposed to be able to do” mathematics and science, according to popular stereotypes. That might be quite revealing too. I fear that it is a very significan effect across the board, which is why I worry so much about the effects of stereotypes in the mainstream media, and not just by poorly chosen imagery, but also by simple omission.

I don’t have any means just this minute of looking at the journal Science for more information, but I think it would also be interesting to see what the breakdown of socio-economic and educational backgrounds of these women might be. I don’t know if they included such data.

I ask because I would like to know if there is an enhancement or reduction of the effect as a result of thsoe factors. Or is it that the stereotypes are internalised at such a root level that it does not matter? Put differently, does a firm knowledge or belief (from more formal education, for example) that it is “merely a stereotype” make you immune or not? I suspect that it gives you a mild immunity at the very best. Certainly not much to speak of. I know from first hand experience how much useful energy and effort can be wasted worrying about other people’s image of you in the light of a stereotype they might be applying to you. It certainly affects one’s performance. And that’s just the conscious part of the whole process….


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