Girls do badly at math when told boys better: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Telling girls that boys are better than they are at mathematics can irritate them so much that it negatively impacts their performance, according to a U.S. study.

Telling girls that boys are better than they are at mathematics can irritate them so much that it negatively impacts their performance, according to a U.S. study. REUTERS/Shai Goller

Researchers from three U.S. universities found that the threat of stereotypes could create worries that undermined the women’s short-term memory system needed for problem solving.

“The women start worrying about screwing up which uses up important short term or working memory which could otherwise be used performing the task,” said Sian Beilock, assistant professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and lead investigator in the study.

But the study also found that reminding girls of popular stereotypes, such as boys being better at math, did not just undermine performance in that topic, but in other areas too.

“They get so concerned with the stereotype that this spills over into other tests,” Beilock told Reuters.

“Our work suggests that if a girl has a mathematics class first thing in the morning and experiences math-related worries in this class, these worries may carry implications for her performance in the class she attends next.”

Researchers have been aware that stereotypes can undermine achievement in schools but little research had focused on the specific mental processes that prompt this response.

The research by Beilock and colleagues from the University of Miami and University of California was based on five studies involving about 200 college women who did well in mathematics.

Math was chosen as a topic because the representation of women in this discipline in low and the stereotypes common.

The women were randomly assigned to two groups, with one set told they were being tested to see why men generally do better on math than women, and the other group simply told they were part of an experiment on math performance.

The accuracy of women exposed to the stereotype was reduced from nearly 90 percent in a pretest to about 80 percent.

The women reported being distracted by thoughts such as: “I thought about how boys are usually better than girls at math so I was trying harder not to make mistakes”.

Among women not given the stereotype message, performance actually improved slightly.

After the math test, the women were also given a standard memory test involving verbal information and it was found that women exposed to the stereotyping also did less well there.

Beilock said reminding any social or cultural group of a stereotype can negatively affect performance.

“This does not need to just be about women. If you remind African Americans about stereotypes in racial differences this can have the same effect,” she said.

The results of the study appear in the paper “Stereotype Threat and Working Memory: Mechanisms, Alleviation, and Spill Over,” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.