Stereotyping and Its Damaging Effects

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It is the Holiday Season once again and a very good time to think about how we relate to other people, especially in terms of the values we hold in high esteem. As a society we Americans believe strongly in tolerance and respect of other people regardless of their race, ethnicity or gender. In that spirit I offer this posting as something to think about for next year:

Among the really interesting fields of study within the discipline of Psychology are both Social Psychology and Cognitive Psychology. Among the fascinating areas of study under intense scrutiny is that of Stereotyping and how it affects performance in both the academic and athletic areas of performance. My interest in this was piqued after having read an article titled, "The Choke Factor: How Stereotypes Affect Performance." The article appeared in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind Matters. What the findings indicate is that people in minority groups are affected by stereotyped beliefs to such a degree that their performance will suffer as a result. By minority groups are meant people such as African Americans and women as well as many others. Here are some examples:


In several experiments very bright and capable women were given Graduate Record Exam types of tests, particularly in mathematics. The women were divided into control and experimental groups. The experimental groups were reminded, prior to taking the test that men perform much better in mathematics than women. The two groups of women then took the exam and were given an empty page to write their thought processes prior to and after taking the exam. The results were fascinating. The experimental group that was told that men are much better mathematicians than women performed poorly compared to the control group of women who were not given this information. The stereotyped opinion about women and math is a myth with hundreds of years of background. The women in the experimental group found that their ability to concentrate and remember how to do the calculations was impaired by distracting thoughts and feelings of anxiety about their performance in math.

In another experiment a group of young and brilliant African American students at Stanford University were given a similar type of task and were also divided into control and experimental groups. In a very similar way reminding the experimental group of extremely brilliant black students that their ethnic groups does poorly compared to white Americans on intellectual exams similarly impaired their performance compared to the control group of brilliant African American students.

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How does the problem presented here seem to work?

One theory being explored by Social Psychologists has to do with what they refer to as Cognitive Threat. The term, cognitive threat refers to one’s awareness of the stereotyped beliefs about their ethnic, gender or racial group. In other words, African American students are aware that according to statistics on intelligence tests, they come out poorly compared to white students on the national level. In the study at Stanford, the experimental was told that they were taking an "intelligence test." This awareness adversely affected their performance despite their intelligence and abilities. The control group, also African American brilliant students had no such problem in performance because they were not told the test was of intelligence.

In the State of Colorado, similar types of experiments were performed with Middle School students. The particular school used in the study was evenly divided between black and white students. Once again, a control and experimental group was used for the study but each group was evenly divided between black and white students. In this case the experimental group was asked to write about the values they held most highly in their lives and how those values affect them. This was done prior to the test. The control group was told to write about values that they did not respect and why that was so. Both groups were then given a task testing their academic abilities. The interesting finding in this study is that the experimental group (write about positive values) performed significantly better than the control group. Why did this happen? Thinking and writing about positive values helped the experimental group perform better than the control group. When the results were examined more closely it turned out that the black students in the experimental did significantly better than black students in the control group.

The experiment was repeated near the end of the year and the results were consistent. When black students had the chance to write about their positive values it helped to increase their academic performance and overcome the cognitive threat.

A Personal Memory:

I was one of those kids who were chosen last for a team. One hot summer evening in the Bronx (New York City where I grew up) sides were chosen for a game of "punch ball" which was the local version of soft ball played with a rubber ball and our fist, used to punch the ball. We had all the bases as represented by the four street corners of the neighborhood. This warm evening many of the local adults joined with us kids for some fun and sports. Once again I was chosen last. Everyone on both teams thought it was funny when I was given short stop to play. You see, you have to be really good at catching and throwing to play that position. Two of my teammates were young men, adults, who I clearly overheard stating I would fail to catch any of the balls hit to me. Well, sure enough, someone on the other team (thinking the same way) hit the ball straight to me. It was a ground ball and as I stretched real hard and reach down I heard my teammate say, "Ach, he will never catch it." But, I did catch and, in that moment instead of getting recognition and congratulations for my successful efforts, I heard the same person say, "It was just dumb luck." Sure enough, he made his prophecy come true. As I threw the ball to the first basemen I was in such despair and so discouraged that I accidentally threw it over his head and the base runner went to second. After that it was all down hill.

Do Not Be Defined by Other People

Many of us belong to minority groups of one type or another. We are either women, African Americans, Jews, Arabs, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Irish, etc. and are subject to various types of stereotyping. If there is a moral to the posting I am writing it is to not allow ourselves to be defined by other people and their beliefs. That is easier said than done but I don’ know any other way to help deal with the problem except that. As a father of two daughters I have tried hard to inculcate into them that conviction that they can do well in math and sciences and my encouragement has been successful. Each does well in math and science and is not hampered by gender role stereotyping.

This is important not only for ourselves but for our children who should not be hampered in reaching their full potential. We cannot change the negative attitudes of others but we can fulfill the destiny that we choose. We can and should develop a greater tolerance for and understanding of other people. Our attitudes affect others and how well they are able to perform.

Your comments are welcome

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