Study fails to find any evidence of ‘stereotype threat’ impairing women’s cognitive control and math ability

A psychological concept known as “stereotype threat” holds that the awareness of negative stereotypes can hamper women’s mathematics performance. The theory quickly gained popularity and has been used to explain why there are more men than women in mathematical fields.

But research has cast doubt on the stereotype threat theory. One such study, recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, failed to find evidence that stereotype threat significantly impaired women’s inhibitory control and math performance.

“My PhD research examined ‘stereotype threat’, which is a term coined by Steele and Aronson (1995). It refers to the finding that knowing about negative gender-related stereotypes (e.g., ‘women are bad at mathematics’) can have a detrimental effect on performance,” said study author Charlotte R. Pennington of the University of the West of England.

“I was inspired to conduct research into this topic because of my own personal experiences in mathematics at a young age; during secondary school, I believed I wasn’t very good at mathematics. This belief created a barrier in my mind whereby I’d see a mathematical problem and instantly switch off and find that I would not want to solve it.”

“In psychology, we call this a ‘fixed mindset’; I felt that my inability to perform well in mathematics was attributable to my gender. I’ve also always been passionate about education, and have a particular interest in understanding women’s underrepresentation and relative underperformance in STEM-related fields (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). I was fascinated by this social psychological theory that seemingly held the answers,” Pennington explained.

“The ‘answers’ appear to be more complex than I had originally hoped, however. My research has found mixed evidence for the theory of stereotype threat, and large-scale replication studies have sparked controversy over the robustness of this phenomenon.”

In the current study, Pennington and her colleagues conducted two experiments to examine the influence of stereotype threat on inhibitory control and math performance.

Their first experiment with 64 women employed an anti-saccade eye-tracking task, which requires participants to look in the opposite direction an object is moving and measures cognitive control. Some of the participants were warned that women had been shown to perform less accurately compared to men.

Their second experiment with another 60 women again used the anti-saccade eye-tracking task, but also included an arithmetic test. As in the first experiment, some of the participants were warned that women had been shown to perform less accurately compared to men. But some participants were told that women outperformed men.

But across both experiments, the stereotypes did not impact women’s performance.

“Our current study aimed to compare two theories that have been suggested to explain how stereotype threat might negatively affect performance. One theory proposes that women perform less well because, knowing about the negative stereotype, they become so motivated to disprove it that this counter-productively results in them giving incorrect answers on difficult tasks,” Pennington told PsyPost.

“The second theory argues that thinking about the negative stereotype and its implications (i.e., ‘women are bad at maths, that must mean I am bad at maths’) may distract us from the task at hand and therefore ‘use up’ the mental resources we require to solve mathematical problems.”

“We tested these theories using a spatial awareness task and a mathematical test, but surprisingly found no evidence of ‘stereotype threat effects’; women who were informed about a negative stereotype prior to completing the tasks did not significantly underperform compared to our control group (the control group were not informed about the negative stereotype). As such, rather than providing support for either of the two above theories, we actually obtained support for the null hypothesis — that is, there was no difference between the groups,” Pennington explained.

“These are important findings because they suggest that women’s visuospatial or mathematical performance on these tasks may not be affected by knowledge of negative gender-maths stereotypes. We view this as a positive finding given how ingrained these stereotypes are in society. This study — and other emerging research — therefore calls into question how well the theory of stereotype threat can explain gender differences in mathematical performance.”

The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is a global phenomenon. But if stereotype threat is not to blame, then what is?

“There is still a lot of debate regarding the extent to which gender differences persist in academic achievement, particularly for women in STEM-related subjects and men in English language education,” Pennington told PsyPost.

“However, our recent field research (i.e., working directly with schools and examining students’ performance) has consistently indicated that girls tend to outperform boys in the majority of school subjects, and that there appears to be little differences in their academic attitudes (i.e., mindset, academic self-efficacy, self-concept).

“Recent studies exploring the gender-achievement gap have also presented contrary explanations; using national Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, Breda et al. (2018) found that more egalitarian countries have a smaller gender-achievement gap, with social, income, and educational inequalities associated with girls’ underachievement in mathematics,” Pennington said.

“However, other research has revealed that countries with higher levels of gender equality have some of the biggest gender-STEM achievement gaps in secondary and tertiary education (“The gender-equality paradox”; Stoet & Geary, 2018). This research is extremely important and interesting, but it seems we have a long way to go in explaining when and how gender-achievement gaps emerge and what might explain this phenomenon.”

Pennington has also found that stereotype threat doesn’t impact females’ gaming performance.

“It is possible that the stereotype threat phenomenon has been overstated as a consequence of what is known as ‘publication bias’. This is a well-known problem in science where only studies with ‘successful’ findings are published,” she explained.

“This distorts the literature leading people to believe that there may be more support for a theory than there actually is (often studies that find no effect, like our study, are hidden from public view).”

“Fortunately, practices are improving, as evidenced by the fact that the European Journal of Social Psychology published this paper! I’m glad because I think it is very important to publish research that, against theoretical predictions, finds evidence against well-known scientific theories,” Pennington added.

“To re-cap, this theory was originally proposed to explain the gender-achievement gap for women and men in mathematics. Given the significance of that statement and the interest it has gathered in the field of psychology, I think it is important that we are able to fairly evaluate research investigating stereotype threat.”

The study, “Stereotype Threat May Not Impact Women’s Inhibitory Control or Mathematical Performance: Providing Support for the Null Hypothesis“, was authored by Charlotte R. Pennington, Damien Litchfield,Neil McLatchie, and Derek Heim.