New research to explore impacts of stereotyping

July 02, 2004

Toni Schmader, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to explore how awareness of negative stereotypes affects the cognitive functions of women and Latinos.

At issue is whether exposure to a negative stereotype can affect cognitive function. Social psychologists have recently discovered that women and racial or ethnic minorities often perform more poorly on academic tests when exposed to negative stereotypes about their group, such as "women and Latinos aren't expected to do well on math and science tests."

The phenomenon is called "stereotype threat," and while the implications are far-reaching, scientists are trying to understand how it works.

Schmader and her team will use the four-year, $400,000 grant to examine the precise nature of the cognitive deficits that some people experience when they are presented with negative stereotypes about their abilities.

The project evolved from initial research by Schmader and Mike Johns, a UA psychology graduate student. Their earlier research demonstrated that women and Latinos showed a decreased ability to focus attention on a task when they believed that their math ability or intelligence was being assessed on the basis of their gender or race.

A new series of experiments will test what psychological and physiological processes account for these cognitive impairments.

Schmader thinks one possibility is that thoughts of the negative stereotype elicit a physiological stress response that is interpreted by the individual as an indicator of poor performance. The person might then expend some cognitive resources trying to regulate feelings of anxiety and self-doubt.

A significant impact of the research is that by better understanding the stress-related processes that are affected by stereotype threat, it may be possible to develop strategies to help affected groups successfully cope with social stigma.
-end-
Principal investigator Toni Schmader can be reached at 520-621-7445 or schmader@u.arizona.edu

This release was written for UA News Services by Lori Harwood.

University of Arizona

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