The Impact of Discouraging WordsWe got a useful reminder the other day of the power of expectations in determining how well people perform. Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine, a doctoral student and professor, respectively, at the University of British Columbia, have published results of research1 investigating how women's math performance is affected by differences in the perceived source of the stereotype that females aren't as good at math as males.
Heine and Dar-Nimrod were looking specifically at how females responded to being told that there are genetic causes of math-related gender differences vs. how they respond if differences are attributed to experiential causes (e.g., boys being given preferential treatment in the early years of math education).
Dar-Nimrod and Heine's research suggests that women tend to perceive gender differences in math to be innate or genetic, but when women consider such differences to be based on theories of nurture rather than nature, they can improve their performance [on a math test].Heine proposes that the divergent impacts may arise because genetically derived differences seem immutable, while socially derived differences can be dismissed by individual women who believe that they have escaped social stereotyping.2
This research reinforces our understanding of the importance of the Pygmalion effect. Telling people you believe they are capable of strong performance tends to be motivating. Conversely, telling people that they are doomed to relatively weak performance is demotivating. In both cases, you get a self-fulfilling prophecy.
1 "Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance," Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine (Science, Vol. 314, no. 5798, Oct. 20, 2006, p. 435).
2 Dar-Nimrod and Heine's research results were consistent with the notion of stereotype threat the idea that simply reminding people that they belong to a stereotyped group will induce weakened performance. Women in their study who were simply reminded that they were female performed on the math test at about the same level as those told that males are genetically better equipped to handle math. Study participants who were told that there are no gender differences in math performed at about the same level as those told that males are better at math due to social factors.