The Power of Stereotypes


Sept. 15, 2006 — -- Are whites smarter than blacks? Are men better than women at science? Those are the stereotypes. But now psychologists say, wait a second, you don't understand the power of a stereotype.

One study showed that women who watched commercials with stereotypical ditzy females before taking a math test scored 38 percent lower than women who didn't see the ads. The Kaplan Education and Test Prep company helped us run similar tests.

And sure enough: Even in our unscientific test, the women who viewed the sexist commercials did worse.

This stereotype effect has been found in study after study, said New York University psychology professor Joshua Aronson

"We found that just reminding the women that they were college students at a selective college overcame the gender gap. However, when we reminded them that they were women, the gap widens," Aronson said.

Aronson said that when he reminds Asians that Asians do well in math, their scores go up.

Then what does the stereotype that blacks test poorly do to a black person about to take a test?

"The situation of taking an IQ test for a black kid is so loaded that it's not a direct measure of their intelligence," Aronson said.

He found he could change blacks' scores simply by what he told them before the test.

"Tell people taking that test that this isn't a test at all, that it's a puzzle, and the black students' scores jump dramatically," Aronson said. Proof, according to Aronson, that mind-set matters.

That was also found in golf experiments done by Jeff Stone at the University of Arizona.

The test is designed to measure the personal factors that correlate with your natural athletic ability.

First, black and white students are told that the miniature golf game they are about to play will be a test of athletic ability.

After hearing that, blacks performed better than whites. Blacks, after all, have heard plenty about blacks being natural athletes.

But, when students are told the golf game is a test of intelligence, his study found the black scores were 18 percent worse.

Some of this research, showing that stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies, was inspired by an Iowa schoolteacher's surprising experiment.

Almost 40 years ago, teacher Jane Elliott decided to show her third graders what it was like to live with discrimination. So she divided her classes by eye color. ABC was there to film one of her tests.

Elliott said to the kids, "The blue-eyed people are the better people in this room. Oh, yes they are. This is a fact. Blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people."

She had the so-called inferior brown-eyed group wear these identifying collars around their necks, and she told them that they were lazy and slow, and they'd have shorter recess.

"Brown-eyed people are not to play with the blue-eyed people on the playground," Elliott said.

Soon, the kids' behavior changed. The brown-eyed children were miserable. The next day, she reversed the roles. .

"Yesterday, I told you that brown-eyed people aren't as good as blue-eyed people. That wasn't true. The truth is that brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people," Elliott said

The children just laughed. But then Elliott gave them a flash card test. After the brown-eyed children had been labeled inferior, it took them five minutes to finish the flash cards. But the next day, when they were treated as the superior group, they finished in half the time.

"When you're told you're superior, you act up to that," Elliott said.

But the children she had treated as inferior that day had the opposite test results. That's when Elliott realized that mind-set can really change academic performance.

Although it was just an exercise, it still proved what a powerful effect being treated as an inferior can have.

The good news, researchers say, is that if students and teachers are just aware of the stereotype effect, then they're on their way toward overcoming part of it.