Guys Get Performance Boost From Sexist Stereotype

Couple riding in a car at high speed
Does he know where he's going? A new study, reported Aug. 30, 2012, suggests men navigate better than women when they're reminded of the gender stereotype. (Image credit: Deklofenak | Shutterstock)

Reminding a guy of the stereotype that men are better at navigating than women can boost his course-plotting skills, according to new research that suggests even when a stereotype has no basis in truth, it can still influence performance.

Studies have found that while men are better than women, on average, at using geometric cues to navigate, the genders are equally good wayfinders when using landmarks. The "men are better navigators" stereotype made men better at both.

"Even when no actual gender differences exist (landmark task), this general stereotype can improve performance," study researcher Harriet Rosenthal of Durham University in England told LiveScience in an email.

Stereotyping genders

Scientists have long known that stereotypes can change the way people handle tasks. Being reminded of a negative stereotype — say, girls are bad at math — can make the stereotyped group choke under pressure, a process called stereotype threat. For example, women who live in unequal cultures are more likely to struggle with rotating objects in their mind's eye, an ostensibly "male" talent, than women who live in gender-equal societies. On the flip side, stereotype lift occurs when a person is reminded that their demographic is supposed to be good at a particular task.

Navigation stereotypes were ideal for studying stereotype lift and threat, Rosenthal said, because the cliché that men are better at directions than women doesn't take into account the sort of directions given. Thus, researchers could look at how the stereotype affected both landmark navigation, which doesn't show any true gender differences, and geometric navigation, which does. [6 Gender Myths, Busted]

The researchers recruited 40 female and 40 male undergraduates to play a computer game in which they had to locate a hidden object either using colorful three-dimensional shapes as landmarks or by gauging the geometry of the virtual room's walls. Half of the participants were told that the results would be used to analyze gender differences in navigation, evoking the navigation stereotype.

Threat or boost?

As previous studies would suggest, men did better than women at navigating with geometric cues alone. But when reminded of the navigation stereotype, men's performance improved on both the landmark and the geometric versions of the game, suggesting the guys were experiencing stereotype lift.

The researchers didn't see any evidence that the women experienced stereotype threat by being reminded of the navigation adage. It could be that the task was too difficult to evoke the drop in performance, Rosenthal said, or it could be that all the women, even those not reminded of the stereotype, thought of it anyway just because they'd been asked to do a navigation task.

"Also, other studies have found evidence of stereotype lift, but not stereotype threat, on different tasks," Rosenthal said, suggesting that the discrepancy might be an area for future research.

The researchers reported their work online Aug. 30 in the journal Sex Roles.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.