Another reason to throw out that “Math is Hard” Barbie Doll

Posted by andrea on

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have reported on an experiment that demonstrates that when girls are told they are naturally worse at math, they perform worse on tests.

As one researcher said:

“We told one group of women a made-up story about scientists discovering a math gene on the Y (male) chromosome, and those women got only half as many answers correct as the others ???‚¬??? possibly because they choked under the pressure,” said UBC psychology professor Steven Heine, whose study with PhD student Ilan Dar-Nimrod was published yesterday in Science magazine.

“But the women who were told there is no genetic difference in math ability between men and women did better, possibly because it’s liberating to learn you don’t have a genetic disadvantage.”

CNN also reported on the story (see? I do read news sites besides the TO Star!) and had more details on how the study was administered:

Heine and doctoral student Ilan Dar-Nimrod wanted to see how people are affected by stereotypes about themselves. They divided more than 220 women into four groups and administered math and reading comprehension tests between 2003 and 2006. Their results are reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

The women were given a math test, then asked to read an essay, and then given a second math exam.

In two groups the women averaged between five and 10 correct answers out of 25 math questions. In the other two they averaged between 15 and 20 correct.

The women in the lower-scoring groups read essays that either contended that there is a genetic difference between men and women in math ability, or discussed the images of women in art — a reading which did not discuss math but was designed to remind them of being female.

Those two groups not only fell short of the other women, but their performance declined between the two math tests, meaning they scored lower after reading the essays than before.

It’s a process psychologists call a stereotype threat, Heine explained. “If a member of a group for which there is a negative stereotype is in a position to test the stereotype, they are likely to choke under the pressure.”

What does this mean for parents? In yet another case of Experts Telling Us What We Already Knew, don’t tell your children that they can’t do such-and-such because of their sex. Or their height, or their eye colour, or their skin colour, or whatever. Being reminded of a stereotype that claims one is innately incapable of performing a particular task tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if your kids are exposed to these stereotypes from other sources (TV, books, magazines, schools, friends), work with them to understand that the stereotype isn’t true, and even if it was, it wouldn’t necessarily apply to them.

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