Stereotype-induced math anxiety robs women’s working memory

May 24, 2007

A popular stereotype that boys are better at mathematics than girls undermines girls’ math performance because it causes worrying that erodes the mental resources needed for problem solving, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

The scholars found that the worrying undermines women’s working memory. Working memory is a short-term memory system involved in the control, regulation and active maintenance of limited information needed immediately to deal with problems at hand.

They also showed for the first time that this threat to performance caused by stereotyping can also hinder success in other academic areas because mental abilities do not immediately rebound after being compromised by mathematics anxiety.

“This may mean that if a girl takes a verbal portion of a standardized test after taking the mathematics portion, she may not do as well on the verbal portion as she might do if she had not been recently struggling with math-related worries and anxiety,” said Sian Beilock, Assistant Professor in Psychology and lead investigator in the study.

“Likewise, our work suggests that if a girl has a mathematics class first thing in the morning and experiences math-related worries in this class, these worries may carry implications for her performance in the class she attends next,” she added.

The results of the study appear in the paper “Stereotype Threat and Working Memory: Mechanisms, Alleviation, and Spill Over,” published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Co-authors are Robert Rydell, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Allen McConnell, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Miami University.

Researchers have been aware that stereotypes can undermine achievement in schools in many ways, but little research has focused on the specific mental processes that prompt this response.

In order to examine those mental processes, the team selected a group of college women who performed well in mathematics. They were then randomly assigned to two groups, with one set of women being told that they were being tested to see why men generally do better on math than women, and the other group being told simply that they were part of an experiment on mathematics performance.

The information that men do better in mathematics than women undercut performance drastically. The accuracy of women exposed to the stereotype was reduced from nearly 90 percent in a pretest to about 80 percent after being told men do better in mathematics. Among women not receiving that message, performance actually improved slightly.

The researchers asked the women exposed to the stereotyping message what they were thinking during the tests and many of them reported being distracted by thoughts such as “I thought about how boys are usually better than girls at math so I was trying harder not to make mistakes” and “I was nervous in the last set because I found out that the study is to compare mathematical abilities of guys and girls.” Women not exposed to stereotyping had fewer such thoughts of inferiority.

Further tests showed that the verbal portion of the working memory was the portion of the women’s mental resources that was most strongly undermined by the anxiety. The researchers showed that women experiencing mathematics anxiety found it more difficult to do problems when they were written out horizontally than when they appeared vertically. Previous findings show that solving horizontal problems relies heavily on verbal resources. In order to see if mathematics anxiety had any lasting impact on performance in the short term, the researchers again had women solve math problems, with half being told they were part of a test to determine why men generally do better in mathematics than women and the other half being told only that they were being tested for mathematics performance. They then gave the women a standard memory test involving verbal information and found that the women did less well on that test if they were exposed to the mathematics stereotyping.

“We demonstrated that worries about confirming a negative group stereotype may not only impact performance in the stereotyped domain, but that this impact can spill over onto subsequent, unrelated tasks that depend on the same processing resource the stereotype-related worries consume,” Beilock and her colleagues wrote.

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: If we can beat Ebola, why not sleeping sickness too?

Related Stories

If we can beat Ebola, why not sleeping sickness too?

November 7, 2017
The man sits on the edge of the bed, feet touching the floor but incapable of supporting his weight. He doesn't speak and his eyes stare vacantly ahead, despite the eight or ten people who have crowded in to see him. His ...

Mutation in fallopian tube lesions may help catch ovarian cancer years earlier

October 26, 2017
Screening for tumor cells in the fallopian tubes of women at high-risk for ovarian cancer may help detect the cancer years before it develops further, suggests a new study co-led by researchers at Penn Medicine and published ...

Children born prematurely have greater risk of cognitive difficulties later in life

October 11, 2017
Babies born preterm have a greater risk of developing cognitive, motor and behavioural difficulties and these problems persist throughout school years, finds a new study led by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Defining optimal opioid pain medication prescription length following surgery

September 27, 2017
A new study led by researchers at the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital analyzed opioid prescription data from the Department of Defense Military Health System Data Repository, identifying ...

'Women worse at math than men' explanation scientifically incorrect, researchers say

January 18, 2012
A University of Missouri researcher and his colleague have conducted a review that casts doubt on the accuracy of a popular theory that attempted to explain why there are more men than women in top levels of mathematic fields. ...

Mathematics will help choose the optimal treatment for bladder cancer

February 10, 2016
MIPT scientists together with their colleagues from St. Petersburg and Israel have analyzed more than 500 previously published scientific articles and proposed their own approach to the choice of methods used for the treatment ...

Recommended for you

Stress in pregnancy linked to changes in infant's nervous system, less smiling, less resilience

November 23, 2017
Maternal stress during the second trimester of pregnancy may influence the nervous system of the developing child, both before and after birth, and may have subtle effects on temperament, resulting in less smiling and engagement, ...

Schizophrenia drug development may be 'de-risked' with new research tool

November 22, 2017
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have identified biomarkers that can aid in the development of better treatments for schizophrenia.

Study finds infection and schizophrenia symptom link

November 22, 2017
If a mother's immune system is activated by infection during pregnancy, it could result in critical cognitive deficits linked to schizophrenia in her offspring, a University of Otago study has revealed.

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

nilbud
2 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2008
Chicks are gullible, wow that's news.
EmeraldSky33
not rated yet Oct 11, 2008
"Chicks" are susceptible to subconscious thought. Wow, that's news. ;-)

Em

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.