Women’s math and spatial reasoning performance significantly improves when they are not worried about confirming negative gender stereotypes. By contrast, men’s math and spatial reasoning performance improves when they are reminded of the positive stereotypes associated with their gender. The research, conducted by professors at the University of Texas at Austin and New York University, appears in this month’s issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

The study was co-authored by Matthew McGlone, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas, and Joshua Aronson, a professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education.

Their research adds to the body of work on stereotype threat, a performance-debilitating anxiety about conforming to stereotypes individuals believe others have them when taking standardized tests. Stanford University Psychology Professor Claude Steele and Aronson introduced the concept in 1995.

It’s been shown that the presence of “stereotype threat”—such as the stereotype that women perform poorly in math—can undermine the performance of even the most talented students. The demonstrations of stereotype threat in college-aged students hinge on cues, such as a demographics question about ethnicity or gender-ascribed identities. Acknowledging that many aspects of personal identity are achieved—membership in social categories based on individual choices and achievements—rather than ascribed, the researchers hypothesized that deficits in test performance caused by stereotype threat could be mitigated by instead cueing test takers to their achieved identity for which there are positive performance expectations.

McGlone and Aronson tested their hypothesis by priming-or calling to mind-different social identities among undergraduates prior to administering the Vandenberg Mental Rotation Test (VMRT), a standardized spatial reasoning test linked to math performance. The VMRT typically produces the largest documented gender difference in any cognitive ability, a difference that some academics have attributed to innate differences in intelligence favoring men.

The researchers asked male and female students at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., to take the VMRT. Prior to the test, the participants completed one of three short questionnaires composed of six questions designed to cue a particular social identity: their residence in the northeastern U.S., their gender, or their status as students in a selective private college.

They found that females who were primed to contemplate their identity as students at a selective private college performed at a significantly higher level on the VMRT than those primed to contemplate their gender or a test-irrelevant identity. In contrast, priming selective private college status among the male participants did not improve their performance. However, priming their gender status (i.e., that men are better at math) did improve their performance.

“Based on these results, we argue that priming a positive achieved identity (selective private college student) can alleviate women’s anxiety about confirming the negative stereotype that ‘women can’t do math,’” said McGlone. “When we primed this positive identity in men - for whom there is no negative stereotype regarding their math acumen - their performance was no better than when their gender was primed.”

These results suggest that scientific claims about large, innate gender differences in math and spatial reasoning ability may be premature.

“The special significance of these results is that spatial ability is thought to be one of the most sex-linked areas of math,” said Aronson. “Studies indicate that spatial ability is correlated with testosterone levels, leading many people to think that girls are worse at it than boys because of biology and that these differences are fixed. Our work shows that the social context and people’s mindsets may be equally important.”

Applications of these findings might include eliminating subtle cues from math testing environments that might make gender identity issues salient to women and thereby impair their performance.

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