We’ve all been there: you feel especially smart and funny when talking to a particular person, only to feel hopelessly unintelligent and inarticulate in the presence of another.
Remind your daughter that girls are smart before she starts on a math problem.
Put up a new poster about race in your classroom.
Give your student a compliment about the new haircut.
Good advice? NO! You just shrunk children’s math and science skills by 10-30% or more. This treacherous effect, called stereotype threat, applies instantly and can linger for hours. It is especially strong in people who are already struggling with mathematics, but it even works on math professors.
As more people become aware of the danger, policies change. Our author Rachel Steinig gave an interview to The NY Times and then to Good Morning America about a “No Body Talk” policy at a summer camp. A quote from Rachel:
People really like me for who I am and not what I look like, and people actually pay attention to the sort of person that I am. Your dress isn’t really you, it’s just something you bought. But whether you are a good friend, that’s truly you.
Researchers don’t know yet why the mere mention of appearance, gender, or race makes math harder, but there are two clues. First, being reminded of social issues can induce fear, hence the name “stereotype threat”. Any fear reduces activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving. More broadly, studies in social information processing hint that it activates different parts of the brain than mathematical problem-solving does. Even a fearless brain wastes tons of resources switching from graphing a function to pondering how women function in the society.
Should you altogether avoid talking about race, gender, or appearance? Not at all. Kids need to discuss key social issues in their lives. But do keep these social discussions away from math adventures and science explorations. People sometimes make fun of stereotypical scientists who don’t give proper compliments, or wear drab clothes, and ignore other social clues. Maybe muting “social noise” helps you keep your math abilities.
What can you teach kids about protection from this effect? Here are three self-help ideas.