Women doing badly at maths or English footballers missing penalties could all be down to historical stereotyping, according to researchers.
A new report by psychologists at Universities of St Andrews and Exeter argues that success or failure at work, school or in sport is not always down to lack of ability or incompetence.
Instead, they suggest that the power of stereotypes can cause poor performance when a person believes they should do badly.
Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter explained, “The power of stereotypes should not be underestimated. What we think about ourselves – and also, what we believe others think about us – determines both how we perform and what we are able to become.”
The report, published today (Tuesday 22 April 2008), argues that the roots of poor performance lie partly in the preconceptions of how well a certain group (usually relating to gender or race) should perform certain tasks. For example, a woman who has been led to believe that women generally do worse than men at mathematics, will perform less well in a maths test as a result. Similarly, the researchers say that one reason why the England football team performs badly in penalty shoot-outs (winning only 1 of 7 in major tournaments) is that performance is impeded by a history of failure.
However, the researchers also point out that stereotypes can have positive dimensions that have the power to boost performance. For example, research has shown that Asian women do better on maths tests if they identify themselves as Asian rather than as women.
Professor Haslam continued, “As well as holding people back, stereotypes and preconceptions can boost both individual and group performance. For example, if you belong to a group that is always exposed to the message `we are the best’, this can promote personal achievement. While we’re often told ‘believe in yourself’, it can actually be more beneficial to focus on beliefs about your group, as group identity is a powerful vehicle for both personal and social change.”
At the same time, the researchers say that stereotypes are flexible and can be changed in order to influence not just external perceptions of the performer, but could also promote a more positive performance.
Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of Andrews commented, “In many ways our stereotype of the stereotype is wrong. Stereotypes are neither fixed, nor necessarily harmful. Indeed, in our own hands, they can be tools of progress.
“It was precisely by challenging stereotypes that activists like Steve Biko and Emmeline Pankhurst were able to achieve emancipation for black South Africans and British women,” he said.
The report is published in the April/May edition of Scientific American Mind.
NOTE TO EDITORS:
THE RESEARCHERS ARE AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW:
PROFESSOR STEVE REICHER, TEL: 01334 463057, EMAIL email@example.com
PROFESSOR ALEX HASLAM VIA SARAH HOYLE, PRESS OFFICER, UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, TEL 01392 262062 / 07989 446920, EMAIL S.HOYLE@EXETER.AC.UK
Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ref: Stereotyping success 210408
View the latest University press releases at www.st-andrews.ac.uk