A new study has suggested that women can perform much better at tasks if they think about the positive things.
Led by Indiana University expert Robert J. Rydell, the study has shown that when aware of both a negative and positive stereotype related to performance, women identify more closely with the positive stereotype, and avoid the harmful impact the negative stereotype unwittingly can have on their performance.
This is the first time that any study has examined the influence of concurrent awareness negative and positive stereotypes.
Previous studies on women's math ability have shown that bearing the suggestion that women are weaker at maths than men tended to make them perform worse on mathematical tasks.
Rydell says that the current study shows how the negative stereotype encroached on working memory, thus leaving less brainpower for the mathematical task at hand.
Although the positive stereotypes had no such effect, they erased the drain of the negative stereotype on working memory when coupled with it.
"This research shows that because people are members of multiple social groups that often have contradictory performance stereotypes (for example, Asian females in the domain of math), making them aware of both a positive group stereotype and a negative stereotype eliminates the threat and underperformance that is usually seen when they dwell only on their membership in a negatively stereotyped group," Rydell said.
"People seem motivated to align themselves with positively stereotyped groups and, as a byproduct, can eliminate the worry, stress and cognitive depletion brought about by negative performance stereotypes, increasing actual performance," he added.
The study involved four experiments in which female undergraduate college students were asked to perform difficult math problems. While some of them were given no information about the stereotypes before working on the problems, some students were made aware only of the negative stereotype that men were better at math than women.
Some students were only made aware of the positive stereotype that college students performed better at math than non-college students, while some were made aware of both stereotypes.
Each experiment involved between 57 and 112 college students, using new students with each experiment.
In all four experiments, the women who learned only of the negative stereotype performed worse than the women in the other three groups, who on average showed no difference in performance level.
An experiment in which a word association exercise was used to gauge which social group the study participants identified with more strongly - being female or a college student - showed that when presented with both stereotypes, the women identified more with their college student identity and less with their gender identity.
One of the experiments measured the students' working memory once they had learned of one or both stereotypes. The women who had learned only of the negative stereotype demonstrated less available working memory.
According to Rydell, people become aware of stereotypes in different ways. For women, simply sitting between two men while taking a math test can activate the negative gender stereotype.
"The activation of the stereotype is relatively automatic and hard to control. Whether you choose to endorse or believe the stereotype, however, is under your control. One option is to think about the positive groups you're associated with that are related to the task at hand," he said.
A research paper on his study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.