Negative stereotypes affect learning, not just performance

August, 2010

Following on from several studies showing that being reminded of a negative stereotype for your group (be it race or gender) affects your test performance, a new study shows it also impairs learning.

A number of studies have demonstrated that negative stereotypes (such as “women are bad at math”) can impair performance in tests. Now a new study shows that this effect extends to learning. The study involved learning to recognize target Chinese characters among sets of two or four. Women who were reminded of the negative stereotypes involving women's math and visual processing ability failed to improve at this search task, while women who were not reminded of the stereotype got faster with practice. When participants were later asked to choose which of two colored squares, imprinted with irrelevant Chinese characters, was more saturated, those in the control group were slower to respond when one of the characters had been a target. However, those trained under stereotype threat showed no such effect, indicating that they had not learned to automatically attend to a target. It’s suggested that the women in the stereotype threat group tried too hard to overcome the negative stereotype, expending more effort but in an unproductive manner.

There are two problems here, it seems. The first is that people under stereotype threat have more invested in disproving the stereotype, and their efforts may be counterproductive. The second, that they are distracted by the stereotype (which uses up some of their precious working memory).

Reference: 

[1686] Rydell, R. J., Shiffrin R. M., Boucher K. L., Van Loo K., & Rydell M. T.
(2010).  Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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