Tag Archives: stereotypes

Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

The Situation with The Jersey Shore

The Jersey Shore, a reality show on MTV that experienced high ratings and a great deal of media attention, wrapped up its first season last week and the cast is already negotiating salaries for a second season. The show involved 8 roommates who worked, lived, and partied at Seaside Heights in New Jersey. And while the series was met with disapproval from advertisers and the media for a number of reasons, including excessive drinking and violence by and against cast members, one of the strongest criticisms has been the perpetuation of the Guido stereotype.

Throughout the series, the cast members frequently referred to themselves as guidos and guidettes, a term considered derogatory by many Italian-Americans. Moreover, the roommates frequently reinforced and placed a great deal of value on what are considered negative and stereotypical qualities (for instance, Snooki – who is pictured above – describes her perfect man as “Italian, dark, muscles, juice-head, guido”). While endorsement of negative in-group stereotypes may seem problematic to some, the social psychological literature can help us to understand why people might engage in this process.

Much research has shown that negative stereotypes can have detrimental effects on stigmatized individuals, including losses of self-esteem and poor test performance. However, more recent work has shown that stigmatized individuals may endorse negative in-group stereotypes in order to buffer their self-image. Specifically, rather than letting stereotypes affect the self in a negative way, stigmatized individuals may combat the damaging effects of stereotyping by justifying the existence of these labels or reframing them as something positive. This strategic behavior, while not always conscious to the individual, is thought to be a way to manage threats to self-esteem and performance.

The controversy surrounding The Jersey Shore may be somewhat deserved but as a psychologist, I can’t help but hope the series returns next year. Each episode is rich with behaviors that can be understood using personality and social psychological theory. So until next year, don’t forget The Situation and Pauly D’s advice: GTL – Gym, Tan, Laundry.

Companies Pull Ads from Jersey Shore

Italian-American Group Angered over Jersey Shore

Jost, J. T., Ledgerwood, A., & Hardin, C. D. (2008). Shared reality, system justification, and the relational basis of ideological beliefs. Social and Personality Psychology Compass

Gender Stereotypes and Success in the Military

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Yesterday Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa L. King was made commandant of the drill sergeant school at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and is the first woman to fill such a position in any of the Army’s schools across the country. According to a recent article by James Dao of the NY Times women constitute a very small percentage of Army personnel in general (13%) and an even smaller percentage of the Army’s highest-ranking enlisted soldiers in active-duty (8%). The lack of female personnel and those in high-ranking positions has been attributed to “pregnancy, long hours and the prohibition against women serving in frontline combat positions” by the Army. Experimental research, particularly in the areas of gender and stereotyping, indicates that women are evaluated differently than men in military training which may also explain the lack of women in higher-ranking positions.

Boldry, Wood, and Kashy (2001) found that although there were no actual performance differences between male and female cadets men were perceived as having the motivation and leadership to succeed in the military while women were thought to have more feminine attributes that would impair performance. Other research has shown that the proportion of women in a given unit is related to performance evaluation such that when women represent a smaller/token portion of the unit their performance is rated lower than men, but when there was a higher proportion of women performance was rated higher than men (Pazy & Oron, 2001). It seems that perception, not performance, contributes to the maintenance of gender barriers in the military among other domains for both men and women. Hopefully, one day more of us can see the world and ourselves as Sergeant Major King does: “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a female, I see a soldier.”

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First Woman Ascends to Top Drill Sergeant Spot

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Gender Stereotypes and the Evaluation of Men and Women in Military Training

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Sex proportion and performance evaluation among high-ranking military officers

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