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The Stereotype Trap

A new study from researchers at Indiana University says negative stereotypes hinder learning in the present and could make it impossible in the future.

Stereotypes are harmful. However, a new study from researchers at Indiana University, entitled "Stereotype Threat Prevents Perceptual Learning," is taking this simple message to the next level: Negative stereotypes hinder learning in the present and could make it impossible in the future.

"Stereotypes about women's math ability can affect their ability to learn," says Robert J. Rydell, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at IU and a leading member of the research team. "It's important to think about ways in which the environment in their schools tends to reinforce or make active those stereotypes."

According to Rydell, it's important to start thinking about this as early as first or second grade, because once these women reach high school and college, it may be too late. "Both targets of the stereotypes, as well as those who aren't targets, don't encode important information," says Rydell. It seems to be a safe guess that for disciplines like math and science, where "those skills are cumulative and [the students] build on those skills, there could be long-term effects."

Negative stereotypes can pertain to just about anything. While Rydell's research focuses primarily on women and math, negative stereotypes ranging from women drivers to women golfers impact our culture and society. And they don't necessarily have to be against women. To cultivate these stereotypes, all that's necessary is "a situation where people can confirm a negative stereotype about their group."

So what steps must be taken to foster a learning environment that is stereotype-free? "One thing that can be done is to be mindful of the fact that the way students behave, the way students interact, may bring up these stereotypes and impact students in ways that are unintended," Rydell suggests.

"Stereotype Threat Prevents Perceptual Learning" was published on July 26, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.