I attended an interesting lecture last week. I heard Claude Steele speak about "stereotype threat".
Stereotype threat is the notion that your performance can be affected by the worry that you're going to confirm some stereotype about you. The concept seemed a little far-fetched to me, but then again the only stereotypes about white male Jews are that we often become doctors and lawyers. Oh, and that we're cheap. Oh, and that we secretly control all commerce. Those things may be true, but since nobody tests my ability to NOT secretly control all commerce, the stereotype doesn't really affect my test scores.
Professor Steele had all sorts of great examples. In the first one he talked about the stereotype that men are better at math than women. So, they did an experiment where they took a set of men and women who had very similar achievement levels in math, and they gave them a challenging math test. Sure enough, the men scored measurably higher than the women. They then tried the same thing with a similar math test but this time they prefaced the test by saying "Although men sometimes score higher on math tests than women, on THIS particular test, that's not true. Men and women score equally well on this test."
After being given that bit of made-up information, sure enough, the women did as well as the men.
Another example was with an IQ test that was administered to a group that was half Caucasian and half African American. As is often historically the case with IQ tests, the white group scored significantly higher than the black one. They they repeated the test with a different group of people, but the second time around they described the test as a "puzzle" test rather than an IQ test. This time the results were nearly reversed, with the black group scoring a little higher than the white one.
I was pretty impressed. The mere suggestion that your race or gender won't affect your performance completely erases some differences that have been historically seen between races and genders. The subconscious threat that many people feel about confirming some stereotype about them can be neutralized.
Professor Steele had another example concerning Asian women who, when it comes to math, have two competing stereotypes. Since they're Asian, they're assumed to be better than average at math, but since they're women, the stereotype is that they're worse. So, they gave a bunch of Asian women a math test that was prefaced with a survey. When the last question on the survey, the one they answered right before taking the math test, was "What is your gender?" the Asian women performed more poorly than the group who got a survey whose last question was "What is your race?" The last thought put in their mind before the test either put the women at ease, able to tackle the problems intellectually, or put them in a subconsciously fearful state.
Ok, last example. He told us about a bunch of students of various races who were given a golf test. When the test was described as "a test of natural athletic ability", the African Americans did the best. When, instead, the test was described as "a test of sports intelligence", the Caucasians did the best.
The other interesting points that he made were:
1) These results, about stereotypes affecting performance, only showed up when the people cared about the results. If you give a bunch of art majors a math test, none of them are going to give a crap about the results or the stereotypes of male vs. female performance. The MORE you care about your performance, the more you'll be subconsciously affected by how you're supposed to perform.
2) If you know about this effect before going into a test, it helps reduce the effect.
Really interesting stuff. Like anything I learn about psychology, I immediately wonder how I can use it to manipulate my daughter. Or control international commerce.