Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Power of Stereotypes

I recently listened to a podcast of the radio show Radiolab, in which the "Obama effect" was discussed. Before Obama was elected or inaugurated, a 20-question performance test was administered on black and white students, and blacks scored significantly lower than whites. The exam was administered two more times -- after the election and inauguration, respectively -- and the performance gap disappeared.

Why? Stereotypes about black intelligence.

There is a growing body of research on the effect of stereotypes on test-taking -- called the "stereotype threat". Blacks, when given an exam that tests their intelligence, consistently score lower than whites. But when told that the exam they are taking is simply practice, blacks score on par with whites.

The key is distraction. If given a test that explicitly measures their intelligence, blacks will become distracted by the those things that others says about their intelligence. Even if a black person is absolutely positive that the black intelligence stereotype is, in fact, myth, then that person is likely to be distracted during the test by the thoughts of the stereotype in their head. If a test is time sensitive -- like most SAT or GRE exams are -- then a couple minutes of accumulated distraction can make a significant difference in scores. Now, replicate a stereotype threat across many years of schooling and many tests; a student is likely to suffer.

Of course, this is not limited to black stereotypes. The same results have been found with women on math tests -- it is "common knowledge" that women are not as proficient in math as men -- and whites on exams when compared to Asians. In all cases, the gap disappeared when the stereotype was put to rest.

This lends new evidence to restraining oneself from the use of stereotypes. If the fact that these hasty generalizations are false does not dissuade you, then maybe the knowledge that the proliferation of the stereotype significantly and negatively altering the lives of others will convince you. As long as a stereotype is strong enough in society to enter the minds of the target group during critical moments -- be it an exam or an interview for a job -- the affected people will continue to suffer, individually and as a group.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe the rubbish we consider "common knowledge" about different groups of people, then that rubbish will find a way to, at least in part, be expressed at important moments.

So in using stereotypes, remember the power you wield. Ask yourself if you think the generalization is really true. Moreover, ask yourself if you want it to be true.


  1. I think this gets at part of the problem but it misses a key underlying issue - most people do not think they hold *any* bias or use stereotypes, even people who clearly (by their language or actions) hold them. The reason that women or minorities are "distracted" when they are taking these tests, etc. is not just because of these general stereotypes, it is about the subtle things that are happening all the time. For example, when I was in high school math class, the teacher (most times a woman herself) would not call on the girls first to answer a question/problem - ever. We can infer from this the stereotype that girls were not "expected" to do as well as boys or what have you but the practical effect is that the excitement of learning math (or anything for that matter) dissipates as the expectation to participate in the learning experience is diminished. I am sure my high school math teachers didn't consciously do this. The "common knowledge" you spoke of is so enculterated that they probably didn't even realize it was happening at all - me either. I just knew that I thought math class was boring, that I could be "invisible" and never participate at all if I didn't really want to and I viewed myself (rather stereotypically) as a being better at reading/writing and not a "math person" or "good with numbers". Ironically, I have an MBA in Finance (one of the most intensively math-based of the MBA concentrations), the study for which I found to be incredibly easy. Hard to say what I (and my brethren, or sisters if you must) could have accomplished if I had actually been actively encouraged in math (I won't even go there with science). The point is that my teachers were not bad people; they didn't purposefully hold me back. They simply lived and breathed the prevailing "common knowledge" that was/is so insidiously subtle at times those subject to it don't realize it is guiding their thoughts and behavior. The key to ending this cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy is addressing each of these fallacies of "common knowledge" (i.e., that Asian students are better at math and science, etc.)directly and openly through explicit education and focused discourse leading finally, over time to a hegemonic shift in thought.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Culture and its corresponding components are monolithic -- especially in a society packed with so many different groups. People often spread stereotypes unknowingly.

    That said, there are clear moments when we all have a choice of whether or not to utilize or express a stereotype in our words or writings to others. Assuming that the these are the only moments in which we have control over stereotypes -- as opposed to the "unknowing" expressions -- these become critical choices.

    This is the way attack the problem from the bottom -- from the individual perspective. Only when everyone begins to choose against expressing stereotypes in those key moments will the proliferation of these generalizations stop.

    Of course, we can incentivize that choice. Make it more likely that a person will choose, "no, I will not use it." This can be done through community shaming, laws against teaching stereotypes or discrimination, etc. However, some of these come into tension with free speech. Moreover, bills often take years (if not decades) of political arguments to find their way into the law book. Still worth the fight, but these shouldn't be the only solution. To depend on the long-term only is to relegate the solution to waiting for generations to change -- this, I'm sure you agree, is insufficient.

    Instead, we must all be vigilant now.