IU social psychologist Katie Van Loo said that if women are made to feel powerful, then they maybe protected from the consequences of stereotype threat.
In new work, Van Loo and Robert Rydell, social psychologists in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, brought the study of these two social forces-power and stereotypes-together to determine whether one could circumvent the debilitating impact of the other.
Negative stereotypes, according to an already large body of research, have insidious effects. The very fear of confirming a stereotype that reflects on one's identity-that "women can't do math," for example-is enough to undermine a woman's performance in the subject.
Social psychologists have labeled this phenomenon "stereotype threat" and have documented its impact in such areas as test taking and athletics.
At the other end of the scale are the equal and opposite effects of power. Power, it has been shown, can have positive effects on individual agency, imparting a sense of freedom and control over one's cognitive, psychological and physical resources and, perhaps, paving the way for optimal performance.
"This paper looks at whether making women feel powerful and reminding them of a time in which they had power can prevent stereotype threat," Van Loo said.
In a series of three experiments, Van Loo and Rydell built a case for this process.
Each instance led to the same conclusions. Feeling powerful protected participants from the deficits in working memory capacity that those without power and under stereotype threat experience. Women who felt high in power performed better in math than those in both the low power and control group, despite the stereotype threat instructions.
"It's not that power made them better at math," Van Loo said, "but it buffered them from the effect of the negative stereotype. When women feel powerful, they can demonstrate their ability relatively unimpeded by stereotype threat."
As for the practical lessons to be taken from this study, Van Loo said, "It's a little preliminary, but the reason we did this is to try to get to the point where we could make a recommendation and show something that can be helpful."
The paper was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.