Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Math, maple syrup and morals – pick your stereotype (part 1)

July 4th, 2011

Break the Stereo Type

I am a woman who’s good at math. I am a Canadian who doesn’t like maple syrup. I am a feminist who shaves her legs. I am an environmentalist who doesn’t eat granola. I am an atheist who has morals.

You can see why stereotypes make me cranky.

Of course, the worst part isn’t the arguments about whether “childless by choice” means “selfish” or whether all writers are antisocial.* Those are just annoying.

The worst part is that knowing you’re being stereotyped can cause a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”: you perform below your ability level because you know that you’re expected to perform poorly.

Stereotype threat has been shown to affect individuals’ abilities in a wide range of circumstances, and psychologists are still figuring out exactly how it causes its harmful effects.

I’m more interested in how to counter it… and there are several ways.

Retrain attitudes

Chad Forbes and Toni Schmader had female university students undergo a subtle retraining exercise. They were asked to categorize words on a computer screen: first a list of actions according to whether society perceives men or women to be better at them, then a list of words according to whether they related to math or language. Then all the words were mixed together and the participants categorized them again – but one button was used for both “women are better” and “math-related” words while another was used for both “men are better” and “language-related” words. (This is a personalized Implicit Association Test, which has been shown to change attitudes in other research.)

The next day, the same women were asked to solve math problems. Half of them were also asked to mark their gender on a questionnaire and told by a male researcher that their natural math ability would be tested afterward. This combination has been shown to produce a feeling of stereotype threat, and it usually reduces problem-solving ability. However, when the “retrained” women were faced with this stereotype threat, they did even better on the math problems than when there was no threat.

Affirm personal values

Typing birdGeoffrey Cohen and his colleagues had students spend 15 minutes writing an essay at the beginning of seventh grade. Half were asked to write about why their most important personal values were important to them, while the other half were asked to write about why an unimportant value might be important to someone else. Then the researchers tracked the students’ school performance.

About half the students in this school were black and about half white. The marks of the white students didn’t differ according to their essays. However, the black students who wrote about their important values did measurably better at school in the following months compared to black students who wrote the other essay. The lowest-achieving students showed the greatest benefit, but even the high-performing black students got a boost.

A colleague of Cohen’s tried the same experiment on male and female university students in an introductory physics class. The men’s marks in the class didn’t differ based on their essay, but the women who wrote about their important values did significantly better than those who wrote the other essay, bringing their average marks to the same level as the men’s. The exercise made a particular difference in those women who had believed that men tended to be better at physics.

More to come…

There are other methods, but this post is already longer than usual. Tune in on Thursday for some more ideas as well as a discussion of how we can use these approaches to achieve our world-changing goals.


* No, that’s just me. Okay, fine, reclusive.

2 comments on 'Math, maple syrup and morals – pick your stereotype (part 1)'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Math, maple syrup and morals – pick your stereotype (part 1)'.

  1. Tata

    5 Jul 11 at 9:22 am

    I’m having trouble with this concept, and maple syrup. Well, who understands that anyway?


    Carol Reply:

    I don’t understand maple syrup. But I might be able to explain the rest of it if you tell me what parts you’re having trouble with. (If it’s the first study, you’re right: it’s hard to understand. I’ll be adding further explanation shortly.)


Leave a Comment