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 whetherblonds are really dumb, is called  Stereotype ThreatStereotype 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.

article author(s)