Friday, October 27, 2006

Gender, Math, and Stereotype

Alpha Psy has an interesting article on the study by Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Hein titled "Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance.

Dar-Nimrod and Heine used a clever trick to prime participants with different 'facts' related to the alleged gender gap in math skills. The has their participant complete a GRE like task that had three parts: the first and the third were mathematical problems, and the second was reading comprehension. The essay of the second part was used as the prime: in one case it said that there were no gender differences in math skills; in another case, it simply primed gender, without alluding to the gender gap (as in a classic stereotype threat experiment). The last two cases are the most interesting: both mentioned the gender gap, but they offered different explanations for it. One explanation was in terms of genetic differences, and the other in terms of personal experience.

The authors hypothesized that women who read the essay mentioning genetics as a cause for the gender gap would perform less well (as the women primed with gender) but that the essay explaining the gender gap by differences in experience would give similar results to the essay saying that there were no differences whatsoever. And this is exactly the result they obtained (both in this experiment and in a replication).

This shows two interesting facts: first, explaining differences in terms of genetics can have a self-fulfilling effect. Women who think that they are less good in math because of genetic differences will be less good. Second, an explanation in terms of experience can negate the stereotype threat effect.

Further reading:
Sex Differences in Cognition: A Primer @ Alpha Psy
Gender, math, Stereotype Threat and Testosterone @ Mixing Memory
Learning about stereotypes reduces their impact @ Cognitive Daily
The negative impact of positive stereotypes @ Cognitive Daily