Saturday, February 07, 2009

Stereotype threat

I'm not sure how many of you have heard the term "stereotype threat," but I just heard a podcast on Radiolab that explains the concept beautifully without actually using the term "stereotype threat." The podcast was inspired by a blog post written in response to an article in The New York Times and also references work by Claude Steele.

In the experiments described in the podcast, researchers proved that what you told a group of test-takers affected their scores on the test, especially how much those scores conformed to stereotypes about their group. So, for example, women taking the math subject test from the GRE (a very diffficult math test) scored worse than men in the control group, but the difference was eliminated when the person administering the test told the test takers that unlike other math tests, this particular test showed no gender difference between men and women. Then women and men scored the same. Other experiments showed that black students did worse than white students on a nonverbal I.Q. test if they were told it was an I.Q. test, but not if they were told that it was a "puzzle."

The Times article is about a preliminary study that seems to show that Obama being elected president has helped to counter stereotype threat. Of course the commenters on the blog post about the article had a lot of predictable things to say about how this study is flawed. It could be that they are being scientifically critical, but it also suggests to me that there are lot of people who in some deep way, don't want to see stereotypes those fall. The "Obama isn't black" argument showed up too.

Stereotype threat only comes into effect when the test is difficult. Researchers believe that when we encounter a tough question, if we know there is a stereotype about our group, even if we don't personally believe it, it can distract us from our task.

I bring this up because I think that it proves that the way we think about ourselves is powerful. If stereotypes about the groups we belong to can affect us so powerfully, what about our own beliefs about what we do and don't do well? I know that in every athletic situation, I start to worry that I will embarass myself, a residual effect of all those hideous experiences in gym classes. This is just another argument about why I should use positive self-talk to counteract those sneaky gremlins whispering in my ear.

I've been reading "Eat, Live, Run" for a while because I love Jenna's positive attitude about food -- she seems to enjoy it without overthinking it and has a very healthy attitude about exercise and life in general. Toward the end of this post, she describes her own experiences with insecurity about food and weight when she was younger. She used prayer to counter her negative thinking. I am not a Bible scholar but I did like this quote she used:

“We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Cor. 4:18

I am still working on countering my own negative thinking and learning to fix my mind on something deeper.

1 comment:

"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07