Laurie Toby Edison

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Dangers of Stereotyping, Yet Again

Debbie says:

First, Laurie is fine, she’s just super-busy this week.

Jess McCabe at The F-Word points out this article on subliminal stereotype cues. Given my ever-growing crusade against junk science, I really wish that the article provided the size of the study samples, whether or not this is a metadata study, and similar information (a quick Google search on the scientists did not help me out here).

Two groups were told to focus on a plus sign on a computer screen. Periodically, they would see flashes on the right or left.

What the students did not know is that the flashes displayed a word for less than one-tenth of a second, followed by a string of “X’s.” The word was presented too quickly for the undergraduate women volunteers to be aware of what it said — but it was enough to make a difference at a subliminal level.

When words with feminine associations such as “doll” or “lipstick” or “skirt” were flashed, students were more likely to express a preference for the arts over math compared with those who were flashed the words “hammer,” “suit” or “cigar.”

Women are not the only ones affected in this way, of course. Reminding white men of the stereotype that Asians are better at math can lower the performance of the white men in math tests.

Nonetheless, the point is interesting, and plausible, in part because of closely related work, such as the preliminary study results on aging , which Laurie and I blogged about in October. It also fits in with Badgermama’s simple belief about gender :

Today outside of school, I was standing next to another mom, a very nice person, fun, smart, and a great parent. The bell rang to let the kids switch from classrooms back to their homeroom before dismissal, and three little boys ran by us. “They’re not supposed to run, they should walk,” she remarked. “But… Boys! They never walk! You can’t make them!” (Said with affectionate approval.)

To most people, this sounds like an innocuous remark. To me, it is the equivalent of smiling benevolently and saying “Ah, white people! They’re so active and enterprising!” In other words, I find it jarring, bizarre, absolutely nonsensical, and offensive. I also find it actively harmful. This conversation happens for many other areas of life, intellectual pursuits as well as physical. It has extremely damaging consequences for boys as well as girls.

This also brings in the “boy crisis,” another topic which Laurie and I also have written about recently.

Putting all these pieces together is like having the phrase “stereotype threat” emblazoned on the front page of the newspaper.

Whether the evidence is anecdotal, collected from lots of small studies, or measured in large studies; whether the focus is age, race, gender; whether the stereotypes in question are positive or negative–none of these things matter. We believe the stereotypes we hear about the groups we belong to, and we reflect our beliefs back to amplify the stereotypes even further.

I’ve written about it before; I’ll write about it again.

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One Response to “Dangers of Stereotyping, Yet Again”

  1. Dan'l Says:

    Well, yeah. If you’re told something about yourself enough times by enough people you will come to believe it, at least at the below-thinking level.

    I have the distinct impression that (not surprisingly) the younger you do this to someone, the more effective it will be.

    For some reason this appears to have more effect with negative “tolds” than positive ones: repeatedly telling a kid with average maths abilities se is no good at maths will produce an innumerate; repeatedly telling hir se’s a math whiz won’t make hir one. Self-doubt can destroy ability but self-confidence, apparently, can’t create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

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