We act out our own stereotypes

We act out our own stereotypes

We cannot help acting out our own stereotypes. By this I mean, if we have a stereotype which applies to us, we are prone to conforming to that stereotype.

Priming is the means by which social psychologists, being extremely devious, awaken a schema in someone without their knowing it. It is like getting a thought going in the back of their mind that they are not aware of. Psychologists might do this by exposing the person to several related words. For instance, to awaken the old age schema people might be exposed to the words grey, wrinkles, walking stick and so on. These words are put in amongst plenty of irrelevant words to stop the participant catching on. The technique seems to do the trick (as seen, for example, by people who have had the old age schemata awakened walking more slowly than people who have not).

Shih, Pittinsky and Ambady decided to see if people would act more like stereotypes of themselves if they had those stereotype schemata awakened. In America there is a stereotype that women are not good at mathematics. There is also one that people of Asian descent are good at mathematics. So the experimenters took a bunch of Asian American women for their participants. One third did not have any schema awakened, one third were exposed to words concerned with ethnicity, and one third were exposed to words concerned with gender. They all then completed a mathematics test.

Those who had their ethnicity schema awakened did better than average at the test, and those who had their gender schema awakened did worse than average.

So, those who had their Asian schema subconsciously awakened conformed to the stereotype concerning Asians and did well; and those who had their female schema awakened conformed to the stereotype that women are not good at mathematics.

A replication of this experiment by Carolyn E. Gibson et al, in 2014 showed the same effect, and also showed that the effect did not materialise in women who were unaware of the stereotypes.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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