Living down (and up) to stereotypes

Oliver Burkeman’s column on mental wellbeing and personal productivity in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, “This column will change your life”, is (despite its dreadful title) always worth reading. This week, Burkeman reports on some fascinating research showing one danger of stereotypes: people’s tendency to conform subconsciously to stereotypes that are applied to them.

He describes research carried out by an American psychologist, Sian Beilock, who asked a number of female university students to take a maths test:

The women were divided into two groups, one of which was told that the purpose of the research was to understand why men, in general, do better than women at maths. The other group was given no such explanation. Here’s what happened: the students who were reminded of the stereotype that women are worse at maths did worse at maths, performing 10-15% less well than the others.

Similar effects are found in other circumstances:

[M]erely asking school children to tick a box to indicate their ethnicity, before completing an intellectual ability test, causes black pupils to do worse than if there’s no tick box.

Though people can live up to stereotypes as well as living down to them:

[S]outh-east Asian women at one US university did badly in maths tests when reminded that they were women, but much better when reminded that they were south-east Asian, and therefore presumed – according to stereotype – to be good at maths.

This phenomenon is known as “stereotype threat”, and demonstrates the damage that stereotyping people can do to those who are thus labelled:

[S]tereotypes about what certain people can do, however unjustified to begin with, become true because they eat away at us; we make them real.

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