THURSDAY, Oct. 19, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Women who were told that men were better equipped, genetically, to solve math problems performed worse on math tests than women not exposed to this notion, researchers report.
The findings highlight the power of what psychologists call "stereotype threat" -- a phenomenon in which individuals from stereotyped groups often "choke" in situations where those stereotypes are put to the test.
"They end up performing worse and 'proving' the stereotype," said co-researcher Steven Heine, an associate professor of cultural psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "In this way, theories about how people behave can end up influencing how they behave."
The findings also point to the new power of genetic theory to reinforce negative stereotypes, experts say. For example, women who are told they have a "gene" for poor math performance may then feel there's no point in trying to prove otherwise.
In that sense, genetics may be as powerful a tool for discrimination today as religious dogma was in the past, experts say.
"Genetics is the new Bible," said Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology and women's gender and sexuality studies at Yale University. "It's assumed to be simple and unassailable -- not only authoritative but immutable and fundamental."
LaFrance was not involved in the study, which is published in the Oct. 20 issue of Science.
As a psychological phenomenon, stereotype threat has been well-documented by researchers. Usually, all that is needed for it to kick in is a subtle reminder that the person belongs to a stereotyped group -- for example, asking them to check a box for race or gender at the top of an exam.
The data on stereotype threat has been consistent across studies and situations, Heine said. "If you remind an African-American that they are black, they will do worse on an IQ test" compared to a black person who doesn't get this type of reminder, he said. "If you remind a woman that she's a woman, she'll do worse on a math test. And if you remind a white athlete that he is white, he'll do worse on an athletics test."
But Heine and his co-researcher, graduate student Ilan Dar-Nimrod, went a step further. They wanted to discover if certain ideas about gender made stereotype threat even stronger.
In the study, the researchers had two groups of women take an exam-like test that included two math sections separated by a verbal/essay section.
The math questions were identical, but the essays differed. One put forth the theory that men were genetically gifted compared to women when it came to math. Another agreed that men outperformed women in math but explained that this was due to environment, not genes. A third essay contended there were no gender differences in math ability, and the fourth essay avoided the subject but did "remind" women test-takers that they were females.
The result: Women who read the "genes" essay performed significantly worse on their exam's math sections than women whose essays did not highlight such a theory. Women who read the essay that merely brought up the issue of their gender also performed relatively poorly, the researchers said.
On the other hand, women who read the essay that blamed women's supposed deficiencies in math on upbringing or environment -- not genetics -- showed almost no effect of stereotype threat on their math scores, the researchers said. The influence of stereotype threat was also nearly eliminated in the scores of women given the "both genders are equal" essay.
The study suggests that genetic theory can give powerful support to discriminatory stereotypes, Heine said.
"People think of genetic influences on behavior in very deterministic ways," he said. "If you think there's a gene out there that's linked to some behavior, and you believe that you have this gene, then people do seem to view it as inescapable."
Other factors affecting performance -- such as childhood socialization or cultural pressures -- seem more pliable, and test-takers may not feel as constricted, he said. In the study, then, many women may not have felt threatened by the environment-based stereotype because they believed they had "escaped" it.
These types of issues gained media prominence last year when then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested in a speech that the relatively poor participation of women in the sciences might be due what he called a "different availability of aptitude at the high end." Summers later resigned his post after a firestorm of controversy over the remarks.
"I think our findings help explain why some people had such a negative reaction to Lawrence Summers' remarks," Heine said. "Because I think, at some level, they suspected what our studies show here: That some ideas can have very undesirable consequences."
Co-researcher Dar-Nimrod agreed. He also pointed a finger at academics and the media for too often oversimplifying genetics research and trumpeting discoveries such as a so-called "gay gene" or "obesity gene."
"Both scientists and the media have a responsibility of reporting certain results -- especially results that might affect people's behavior, perceptions -- in a way that's going to do the least damage to those people," he said. Genetics is a much more subtle science, he added, and a myriad of genetic, environmental and other factors work together to form people's behaviors.
LaFrance, whose own research has come up with results similar to the new study, said the notion that some people are "genetically" inferior to others is going to be tough to overcome, however.
"Once you say that a difference is genetic," she said, "then it doesn't make any sense to try and change it -- to put women in the armed forces, or to have men working in nurseries. Because then we'd be fighting nature."
There's more on stereotype threat at Miami University.