Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why girls drop math III: Stereotype threat

Negative stereotypes can cause math anxiety.

Hillary Clinton and her supporters have been talking about the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. It is wonderful to see opportunities open up around the country for women to take part in every facet of life that was traditionally dominated by men. Yet, we still find that women are under-represented in math and science fields.

In the previous two posts, I talked about two factors that lead girls to drop math: their belief that math is a talent not a skill, and their desire to pursue careers that have lots of social interaction. I mentioned data from Jacquelynne Eccles that looked at reasons why girls drop math. Another factor that strongly affects girls is math anxiety. The more math anxious girls get, the less likely they are to continue taking math.

One important part of math anxiety is a vicious circle. Girls hear from parents, friends, and sometimes teachers that girls in general don't do well in math. So, there is a stereotype out there in the culture that girls are bad at math. That stereotype then leads to anxiety when girls are confronted with tests that will demonstrate their math ability. That anxiety causes girls to do worse on math tests than they would if they were not aware of the stereotype. Their poor performance on tests convinces them that they are bad at math, and the stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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This pattern was first demonstrated by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who called it stereotype threat. They found that when people are in a situation in which they might confirm a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong (based on gender, race, or ethnicity, for example) they perform worse in that evaluation than they do when they are not aware of the stereotype. This finding has been obtained in many settings since it was first reported in 1995.

What can be done?

Recent work from our lab (to be published in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) shows a possible way out. Lisa Grimm, Todd Maddox, Grant Baldwin and I had college men and women take a hard math test (using questions from the GRE exam that is used for entrance to graduate school). In one condition, people got points for each question they answered, but they got more points for correct answers than for incorrect answers. In this case, we observed the typical stereotype threat effect. The women got about 10% more of the questions wrong than the men did.

In a second condition, though, people started off with a number of points, and they lost points for each question they answered. They lost fewer points for correct answers than for incorrect answers, and so they were trying to minimize the number of points that they lost. In this case, the women actually performed somewhat better than the men. In fact, the women who were trying to minimize the number of points they lost did just as well as the men who were trying to maximize the number of points they gained. That is, the stereotype threat effect disappeared.

Why?

We suggested that having a negative stereotype puts you in a defensive motivational mode. You are prepared for negative outcomes in the environment. If the environment actually has positive outcomes in it (like gaining points), then you act cautiously, and your performance in testing situation suffers. If you are prepared for negative outcomes and the environment actually has negative outcomes in it (like you are losing points), then you are less cautious, because the environment is as you expect it to be.

There is still a long way to go to figure out how to use results like this to demonstrate to girls that they do not need to fear math. But now, at least, we know that the effects that negative stereotypes on girls can be counteracted. Hillary Clinton bashed the glass ceiling in politics. Hopefully the ongoing research in Psychology will bash the glass ceiling in math and science as well.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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