Are Stereotypes True?
Are African Americans really better at basketball than Caucasians? Are blonds really dumber than brunettes? Are women really worse at math than men? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is no. Let me explain by focusing on the stereotype that women can’t do math. At first glance, this stereotype seems to be true. For instance, men continue to outperform women on the math sections of the SAT and GRE, and men outnumber women in college math courses and math-related jobs. Surely this is evidence that women are not as good at math as men. But as this article will explain stereotypes are self-perpetuating and not only reflect but also cause performance differences between groups.
For instance, if the stereotype that women are worse than men at math reflects true group differences, then women should always score worse than men on a math test, no matter how the test is presented. However, this is not the case. Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, (1999) found that when a math test was described as showing no previous gender differences in performance, women performed as well as men. When the test did not include this description, men outperformed women, implying that the stereotype itself causes stereotypic behavior. In fact, stereotypes reinforce stereotypical behavior by way of two psychological phenomena.
The first phenomenon, which was briefly referred to by Regenberg (2007) on her article in In-Mind on the question whether blonds are really dumb, is called Stereotype Threat. Stereotype threat occurs when someone feels threatened by the possibility of confirming a negative stereotype about their group (Steele, 1997). Ironically, this concern leads to decreased performance, which in turn confirms the stereotype that the person was hoping to avoid. An example of stereotype threat is a when a woman, who considers herself good at math but is aware of the stereotype that women can’t do math, takes a difficult math test. When she encounters difficult questions and experiences frustration, she doesn’t want others to think she is struggling because she is a woman. She feels increased pressure to perform well, which actually works against her and makes her perform worse.
The second phenomenon that reinforces stereotypic behavior is called Stereotype Lift . Walton and Cohen (2003) found that men’s scores were higher on math tests that were described as showing previous gender differences in performance compared to tests that were described as showing no previous gender differences. In other words, men experienced a boost in performance when gender stereotypes were relevant to the situation, compared to when they were irrelevant. Downward Social Comparison , a process whereby people elevate their self-esteem by comparing their group to a lower-status group, is thought to be the basis for this lift in performance (Wills , 1981). Men are able to boost their self-esteem and improve their math performance by comparing themselves to women, who are stereotypically believed to be worse at math than men. They may think to themselves, this test is difficult but at least I know I am better at math than women. However, when stereotypes are made irrelevant to the given test, men are no longer able to use this line of thinking to boost their self-esteem.
Together, decreases in women’s scores caused by stereotype threat combined with increases in men’s scores caused by Stereotype Lift work together to exaggerate the performance differences found between men and women in math domains. These exaggerated performance differences confirm and perpetuate the stereotype that women can’t do math, and the cycle of stereotype threat and Stereotype Lift continues with even greater fervor. It is a vicious cycle: the stereotype causes gender differences in math performance; these differences in performance confirm the stereotype; the stereotype grows stronger and is even more likely to produce exaggerated group differences. As a result of the seemingly inevitability of male superiority in math domains, fewer women enter math-related jobs and college courses because they view their efforts as futile. They may think to themselves, what’s the use of pursuing a career in math if I’m not genetically wired to do math and will always be outperformed by my male colleagues? Instead, they may seek self-worth from success in areas in which women are not negatively stereotyped. The small number of women in math-related fields further confirms and perpetuates the stereotype. It seems to be a never-ending cycle, but the negative effects of stereotypes are not inevitable. First, certain factors must be present for stereotype threat to occur, and second, the negative effects of stereotype threat can be prevented.