Scientific American has a lengthy article in this month’s issue about how stereotyping affects our performance on specific tasks (one of the positive findings that psychological research has brought us in the past two decades). But contrary to conventional wisdom, stereotyping not only hurts us, but can also help us.
The article summarizes research from the past few decades that shows when people are reminded of a negative stereotype that pertains to a group they identify with (e.g., race or gender), they do worse on a specific task than when a control group isn’t given the reminder. For instance, when women subjects were reminded that “women are no good at math,” they did worse at a math task.
But the article also noted that this can be used for beneficial purposes as well. When reminded of a positive stereotype, people in the stereotyped group did better at the task:
The participants in this research were Asian women. In different conditions of the studies they were required to focus on the fact either that they were women (who are stereotypically worse at math than men) or that they were Asian (stereotypically better at math than members of other ethnic groups). As in Beilock and her colleagues’ work, in the former case the women performed worse than they did when no group membership was made salient. Yet in the latter case they did better.
Stereotypes can also be used to promote one group at the expense of another. For instance, if an African-American is reminded that “white people can’t jump (e.g., in basketball),” they’ll perform better. This phenomenon is called “stereotype lift,” and can be used to motivate one group by pointing out the inferiority of another group’s abilities.
But none of this makes any difference if a person doesn’t believe in the value of whatever it is the stereotype is about. A female massage therapist probably doesn’t much value complex calculus equations so would care less about the stereotype than, say, a female mathematician.
The old axiom that “ignorance is bliss” holds true with stereotypes — the more you believe in them, the more they may be true for you. Stereotypes box us into unconscious expectations for ourselves (and often, others too).
The Scientific American article offers three strategies to work around these stereotype threats. One way is to work around the stereotype by learning solutions to problems by rote so a person is not longer handicapped by the stereotype. For instance, a woman may study especially rigorously on math courses, to beat the stereotype.
A second way is to recognize that stereotypes are flexible and can change by simply thinking about them, altering the dimensions of our comparison with others, or changing the frame of reference used for comparison. For example, if a nerdy, non-athletic scientist compares themselves with a professional athlete on an athletic task, they’ll feel badly. But if the same scientist compares himself with, oh, I don’t know, say an accountant on the same task, they’ll feel better. This is called “social creativity” and works by changing the comparison to one that’ll provide us with a stereotype lift and make us feel better about ourselves.
The last strategy the article suggests is “to advocate group-based opposition to the status quo through a strategy of social competition that involves engaging in active resistance.” That’s a mouthful! The upshot is that instead of changing our own perceptions or reference of comparison to others, we try and change the world around us. It’s more challenging, but can result in much larger changes for the entire stereotyped group:
Here group members work together to challenge the legitimacy of the conditions (and associated stereotypes) that define them as inferior—trying to change the world that oppresses them rather than their reactions to the existing world. They work to counter the stereotypes that are tools of their repression with stereotypes that are tools of emancipation. This strategy was precisely what activists such as Steve Biko and Emmeline Pankhurst achieved through black consciousness and feminism, respectively.
If you have the time (it’s a 6 page article) and are interested in the topic of stereotypes, I highly recommend the article.
Read the full article: How Stereotyping Yourself Contributes to Your Success (or Failure)