Could a casual comment—something as simple as “Boys are really good at this game”—make children perform less well on a given task? That’s what a new paper suggests. One of the authors, Andrei Cimpian, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, answered questions via e-mail about the findings:
We know from the work of Carol Dweck and others that praising a child’s intelligence, rather than his or her effort, seems to inhibit the child’s ability to carry out challenging tasks. How does your research build on that finding?
In this paper, we suggest that children’s ability to perform an activity may be undermined by statements that link success at that activity with membership in a social group. For example, statements to the effect that girls or boys are good at a task might signal to children, regardless of their gender, that success on this task is simply a byproduct of an inherent aptitude that the members of the relevant group possess in large amounts. In turn, this belief might impair children’s performance on this task because it often leads them to assume they have little control over the outcome: If they’re having a difficult time with this task, then that must mean that they don’t actually have what it takes to succeed, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
In other words, rather than stepping up their efforts when they make mistakes, children who believe in the existence of such talents or aptitudes typically start to worry about how much of these supposed talents they possess. These worries take up cognitive space, so to speak, and ultimately interfere with performance.
In a nutshell, then, our argument is that statements about the abilities of groups affect children’s achievement via the beliefs they lead children to adopt—beliefs about factors, such as talent, that are presumed to be key for success but are also outside of children’s control.
You mention one of the findings that caught my eye—that the effect is still there regardless of gender, that if you say, “Boys are good at this,” that impairs both girls and boys. Is that what you expected to find?
Yes, that’s what we expected. Even though it seems a bit surprising, we had good reasons to predict that statements about the abilities of groups would have these broad effects. Here’s why: When we ask children to explain why groups are good at some unfamiliar activities, we find that it makes no difference if children themselves are in those groups or not. For example, both boys and girls say that girls as a group are good at gorp (a game we made up) because of some inherent trait or talent: because they are smart, because they grow fast, etc.
In light of these findings, it seemed reasonable to expect that the negative effects of hearing about the abilities of groups would hold across the board: As long as you assume that there is some sort of inherent trait or talent that leads to success in the task at hand, you might become concerned with how you’re doing (because your performance will signal how much talent you have), which might distract you from the task, and so on.
By the way, an earlier study of mine also suggests that it is simply the exposure to talk about the abilities of groups that makes the difference. In this study, children who heard that an entire group was good at the game they were about to play had more-negative attitudes toward this game (they liked it less, they felt less happy while playing it) and were less motivated to play it in the future. Similar to the studies we’re discussing here, these effects were independent of whether children heard that their own group was good at the game or that another group was.
Do we know anything about how long these effects last?
We don’t have direct evidence on this point, unfortunately. However, some of my other work suggests that children’s memory for facts about categories of things/people is particularly robust (Cimpian & Erickson, 2012, Cognitive Psychology). When you tell children something new about a category (for example, something about boys or girls), their memory for this bit of information is better than if you had told them something about an individual belonging to that category (for example, something about a particular boy or girl). Extrapolating to your question, we can maybe predict that statements about what different groups are good at will stick with children and influence their behavior in the long term. But this is just speculation at this point.
Do the effects extend to other tasks? That is, will this kind of group stereotyping impair kids when they take on different challenges?
We’re exploring this question right now, in fact. So far we have some evidence that thinking about what groups (rather than individuals) are good at might lead children to adopt a general belief that talents are needed for success on any activity—even ones that kids have never heard of before.
I haven’t written up these data yet, but the experiment goes something like this: We bring kids into the lab and ask half of them questions about what boys and girls are good at, (Are boys good at swimming? Are girls good at drawing?) The other half of the kids are asked the same questions, except about particular boys or girls they know. (Is Johnny good at swimming? Is Eva good at drawing?) Then all of the kids are asked a series of questions that measure how likely they are to see talents versus effort as important to success in completely unfamiliar activities.
The results are pretty striking: Simply asking kids a few questions about whether boys or girls as a group are good at familiar activities such as drawing or swimming makes kids more likely (relative to the kids who were asked about individuals) to believe that talent, not effort, is important for success at novel activities—ones they’ve never heard of before.
We haven’t yet looked at whether children’s performance on these novel tasks is affected as well, but if the beliefs are in place, the behavior often follows.
So what’s next on your research agenda?
One line of work that I’m particularly excited about explores why there are relatively few women in certain academic fields (e.g., science and technology disciplines, philosophy). This is work I am doing in collaboration with a terrific group of scientists from other universities (Sarah-Jane Leslie, philosophy, Princeton University, and Meredith Meyer, psychology, University of Michigan), as well as with my graduate students at the University of Illinois.
Briefly, we are investigating the idea that women might be particularly likely to disengage from fields where the people in positions of authority (professors) believe that special aptitudes or talents are required for success in those fields. Although there is much evidence that women and men are, in reality, equally capable of succeeding in any academic field, women may think that they are less likely to possess these supposed aptitudes (perhaps because of what they hear and see around them in our culture), and therefore they may be more likely to settle on other career options. The results so far look very promising, so I’m excited for us to write up this work and share it with the public.