I get quite cross when some says “I’m no good at that” or “I can’t do that” or worse “You’re stupid.” I’m especially conscious of it as a dad of two small children. I believe talk like that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if it is said often enough about someone, they’ll live up to it. It’s a genuine curse, not just for impressionable young children but for us all.
So I was fascinated to see a report from Indiana University researchers describing how negative stereotypes affect behaviour and learning. Although the link between performance and stereotypes has long been known, this is the first time a study has indicated a link to the learning itself. The study explores Stereotype Threat (ST). Stereotype threat (ST) refers to a situation in which a member of a group fears that her or his performance will validate an existing negative performance stereotype, causing a decrease in performance.
“For example, reminding women of the stereotype ‘women are bad at maths’ causes them to perform more poorly on maths questions” say the report. The study was designed to examine “attention and perceptual learning in a visual search,” not mathematical learning specifically, because the tasks used in the experiments allowed researchers to easily differentiate between learning effects and performance effects. By doing so, the researchers were able to show that actual learning had not occurred in the group of women who had been reminded of the negative stereotypes. Basically, not only do we prove low expectations true, we undermine our ability to change.
Of course there’s a balance to achieve: too many of us have wholly unrealistic expectations of life and a completely flawed understanding of our own abilities because of well-meaning but unhelpful flattery. Still, it’s a prompt for us, me, to think about how we talk to others; to remain truthfully encouraging while believing in everyone’s potential to be better than expected.