Stereotypes often prevent us from performing at our very best, but they don’t deserve such a bad name after all. Gender stereotypes like ‘males are better than females at maths’ (a negative female stereotype) have been shown to affect maths performance in female college students. However, gender is just one of our many social identities (age, race, ethnicity, social class etc.) and each identity can be associated with either positive or negative stereotypes. When the same group of female college students was made aware that ‘college students are often believed to be better at maths than their non-college peers’ (a positive college-student stereotype), the negative effects of the female stereotype were eliminated. So how often do negative stereotypes related to one of our social identities handicap our performance in a specific task? Can we negate this effect by considering whether we belong to another social group that is positively associated with the same task?
Often, we are not expected to perform well simply because we belong to a particular social group, as shown by the gender-maths stereotype described earlier. This is known as stereotype threat and it has been found to negatively affect performance in a wide range of tasks (e.g., intelligence and memory tests, golf putting, maths tests) by reducing the already limited capacity of the working memory.
Researchers from Indiana University, University of Chicago, and Miami University believed that stereotype threat can be reduced or even eliminated by simple manipulations. Their research has been based upon two key ideas: (1) each person belongs to not one but multiple social groups (hence we have multiple social identities) and (2) the social identity theory (SIT).
Each of the social group that we belong to can be associated with either positive or negative stereotypes (‘females are bad at maths’ or ‘college students are good at maths’). According to the social identity theory, we will identify more with a social group that we already belong to when it is associated with a positive stereotype and inhibit the social identity associated with a negatively stereotyped group. These two processes of increased identification and inhibition are due to our motivation to feel positively about ourselves, which is the main assumption of the social identity theory.
The researchers conducted four experiments to investigate whether presenting participants (female college students) with an alternative social identity that is associated with a positive stereotype about maths ability can negate performance decrements in maths tests. Experiments 1–3 found that a positive stereotype (‘college students are good at maths’) that was presented alongside a negative stereotype (‘women are bad at maths’) actually eliminated stereotype threat effects in these female college students. The positive stereotype not only increased identification with the college-student identity, but also inhibited the negatively stereotyped female gender identity. Identification with the positively stereotyped social group also helped retain working memory capacity. Consequently, these female students performed better in maths tests than the control group whereby no alternative social identity was presented.
However, things are actually far more complex. The authors noted that positive stereotypes can cause individuals to ‘choke under pressure’. For instance, when Asian students’ identity as an Asian was highlighted, it led to poorer maths performance. As Asians are often associated with high-levels of maths ability, the mere highlighting of this identity can trigger performance anxiety as individuals may be worried about being unable to live up to expectations that are stereotypical of their social group.
Nevertheless, these findings suggest that we should try to be flexible with our social identities and this alone can possibly lead to performance gains. Sometimes, literally rethinking who you are can help you achieve more!
So do you have a relevant positive stereotype to counter a negative stereotype? Leave your comments.
Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Beilock, S. L. (2009). Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 949-966. doi:10.1037/a0014846