A new study finds that sexist stereotypes, such as saying men are better at directions, can boost a man's performance in a given area.
Even when no actual gender differences exist, generalized stereotyping can improve performance, study researcher Harriet Rosenthal of Durham University in England told LiveScience in a report on Monday.
The new study, published in the journal Sex Roles, is one of many that have found that stereotypes influence behavior. Tell a group of girls that they are bad at math, and they will choke under pressure at math skills. On the flip side, people enjoy a "stereotype lift" when they are reminded that their particular demographic has a special talent for a specificied task.
In their study, researchers tested stereotypes of navigation by recruiting 40 female and 40 male undergraduates to play a video game in which they had to locate a hidden object either using 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 assess gender differences in navigation, hence planting the seeds of stereotyping in their minds.
The researchers chose the navigation stereotype because, according to prior research, men are better at women on average at using geometric cues to navigate. But both genders are equally good navigators when it comes to using landmarks as references.
As expected, the men outperformed the women at navigating with geometric cues. "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," writes LiveScience.
What about the women? The researchers didn't report a difference in female course-plotting by being reminded of the navigation stereotype -- but Rosenthal suggested that it could be that all of the women thought of it anyway just in being asked to perform a navigation task.