Negative Stereotypes Stick With You

Negative stereotyping wields a lingering impact on those who experience it, and in situations unrelated to the initial insult, a new study finds.

"Past studies have shown that people perform poorly in situations where they feel they are being stereotyped," said lead researcher Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto in Canada. "What we wanted to do was look at what happens afterwards. Are there lingering effects of prejudice? Does being stereotyped have an impact beyond the moment when stereotyping happens?"

Inzlicht and colleagues went a step beyond the usual studies which examine the effects of discrimination on subjects completing a task directly related to cognitive abilities. They also observed the impact of experiences of negative stereotypes on subjects faced with neutral tasks afterwards —those tasks that required the ability to regulate thoughts and emotions.

"Even after a person leaves a situation where they faced negative stereotypes, the effects of coping with that situation remain," Inzlicht said. "People are more likely to be aggressive after they've faced prejudice in a given situation. They are more likely to exhibit a lack of self-control. They have trouble making good, rational decisions. And they are more likely to over-indulge on unhealthy foods."

Women and math

First, researchers asked female participants to take a math test that would determine whether they were "capable or smart in math," the scientists said in a statement. The instructions involved researchers subtly infusing stereotypes about women and math abilities "into the air," Inzlicht said. In contrast, in a control group the researchers introduced women to the same test while being supportive and offering coping strategies to deal with the stress one could encounter when taking the exam. 

After the test, the women completed tests measuring their eating impulses and aggression.

Participants were then asked to describe an ice cream flavor after eating as many samples as necessary—even though only three spoonfuls in total were privately deemed sufficient by researchers. Another test asked subjects to play a computer game that allowed them to shoot other, losing players with a loud burst of white noise if and for as long as the subject desired.

"In these follow-up tests, the women who felt discriminated against ate more than their peers in the control group," Inzlicht said. "They showed more hostility than the control group. And they performed more poorly on tests that measured their cognitive skills."

The effects were particularly pronounced for women exposed to further negative stereotypes attributed to their group, Inzlicht added.

Serious stereotype effects

Ultimately, the study results show that stereotypes have negative effects, even for individuals who leave the environments where they faced the stereotyping.

"What we learned is that you have a limited ability to regulate yourself in general," Inzlicht told Livescience. "If you need this ability to regulate yourself during the math test, you become distracted, you start going into your memory, you start suppressing emotions, you start suppressing thoughts."

He added, "Then, when you come to a neutral situation, if it also requires you to regulate your thoughts and emotions, because you regulated these previously, you have less to devote to the current situation."

In one task, stereotype-primed women exhibited a brain activity that showed evidence of inefficient processing, as though they were "attending to all sorts of trials, not just the trials of whether they would make a mistake," Inzlicht said. The task had tested for focus by asking participants to match colors to words by looking at a computer screen of the word in a different colored font.

"Some people believe that people exaggerate prejudice, like playing the 'race card.' I think this [study] shows there are lingering effects that occur in environments where the impact was not first made. Even if you don't think something was about race, if your previous environment was about race, or you thought it was about race, it can affect you," Inzlicht said.

Even memories of past experiences can have this adverse effect, the researchers found. When asked to remember and write about being a victim of prejudice based on social identity, studentsmade the poorest judgments on a logic test given soon afterwards

Researchers hope the study will raise awareness for this phenomenon, and encourage people to both better cope with their emotions and cognitions in the present.

"If people try not to take things personally they may not experience the effects we're describing," he speculated.