Regular commenter Blair was kind enough to bring to my attention an article from The Globe and Mail, reporting research done at the University of British Columbia, that illustrates how what we think we know can have a real impact on what we can do:
Over three years, researchers gave 135 women tests similar to those used for graduate school entrance exams. Each woman was expected to perform a challenging math section, but not before reading an essay that dealt with gender difference in math.
Of the four essays, one argued there was no difference, one argued the difference was genetic and a third argued the difference stemmed from the way girls were taught in elementary school.
The fourth essay covered the subject of women in art; it has long been held by researchers that simply reminding a woman of her gender will negatively impact her test performance.
Any guesses as to the outcomes?
The women told prior experience determined their math ability got twice as many answers right on the exam as women told their genetics were to blame. ...
The women who were simply reminded of their gender also performed worse than those told their was no difference in gender abilities in math.
Let's repeat that: reminding the test subject that she's a woman impairs her performance on the math section.
The article calls this phenomenon "stereotype threat", which seems to amount to living up to social expectations of the group of which you are a member. And this, it seems to me, is one more reason to be particularly careful about research that purports to demonstrate that some group of humans really does display some behavior (less aptitude for math, lower average IQ, what have you) that pretty much fits what people generally believed about that group prior to the research. To break it down:
- The expectations of the researchers may influence their experimental design and interpretation of results.
- The expectations of the subjects may influence how they behave in the study -- again, potentially skewing the data.
- The expectations of both researchers and subjects may be influenced by societal stereotypes -- maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously.
- The results of "scientific studies" (which may well be biased by stereotypes) can serve to strengthen those stereotypes.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
The UBC researchers offer a possible explanation for why certain kinds of "scientific backing" for stereotypes may be especially influential on the behavior of the people top whom the stereotypes are supposed to apply. As reported in the article:
"The influence of genes on behaviour is enormously complex but unfortunately the way these messages are conveyed are in grossly simplified terms," said Steven Heine, an associate professor of social psychology at UBC and the co-author of the study.
He cited the example of the discovery of a link between genetics and obesity.
"People seem to interpret it as meaning that if I have this gene I must become obese," he said.
"The relations between genes and behaviour are very complex and unfortunately people do view them in more deterministic terms than they ought to."
Yup, people seem to be genetic determinists. It's much more complicated to take account of the fact that even when genes are part of the picture, environment matters -- and that social environment is a real part of the environment that ought to be taken into account.
What to do? I don't think the answer is to ban certain lines of research, but rather to be aware of how easy it is for these lines of research to be biased by what "everyone knows" from the stereotypes. It seems like there ought to be a pretty high burden of proof to establish that bias hasn't crept into the results. In the meantime, I hope that women and others affected by "stereotype threat" can figure out how to be appropriately skeptical of the claims of researchers to allow them to kick some ass on their math tests.