Exposure to stereotypes—such as ‘boys are better than girls at learning mathematics’—can have a big impact on children’s beliefs. This column reports evidence on ‘stereotype bias’ and what we can do about it. The authors conclude that we have to ensure that girls, minorities, and anyone else who faces a potentially harmful stereotype, also gets exposed to the message that they too can succeed—for instance, by showing examples of success that look just like them.
One of the most pressing issues in today's world is the spread of misinformation—from fake news to messages of ethnic and gender bias. Incorrect beliefs spread rapidly and can cause a different form of harm.
In our research, we explore ‘stereotype bias’—the notion that one group defined, for example, by gender or ethnicity, is inferior to another on some dimension. We look at how it affects child development between the ages of 12 and 16, and what we can do about it.
Children form their beliefs based on what they come into contact with—their parents, their peers, their teachers, and the media. These beliefs influence children's decisions: from what they want to be when they grow up to what they choose to work hard in and where they slack off.
This matters: telling some children they are bad in a subject just because of their gender or ethnicity can cause them to be less excited about that subject relative to others. If this makes them work less hard, they'll score worse on the next test, confirming the initially incorrect message.
In a series of recent papers, we study the transmission and impacts of exposure to the stereotype that boys are better than girls at learning mathematics. We use data from Chinese middle schools to study how this belief transmits from one generation to the next, and how this affects girls' confidence and performance.
In data from these schools, we see that girls outperform boys in all subjects, including mathematics. Despite this, roughly half of both parents and children still believe that boys are better than girls. What is going on?
We study how the transmission of this belief from parents to children may help explain this pattern. Starting this research, our hunch was as follows:
- First, people form their beliefs when they are children.
- Second, children's beliefs are hugely influenced by their parents' beliefs.
- Third, parents' beliefs were formed 30–40 years ago, when the parents themselves were children (and when the stereotype of women performing worse at mathematics than men, for various reasons, was more likely to be true).
What this means is that if parents have outdated beliefs, they might be passing them on to their children, and their children might be passing them on to their friends.
We show that in the Chinese case, this is exactly what happens. Children whose parents believe that boys are better than girls at learning mathematics are much more likely to hold this belief themselves.
What's worse is that if a child gets put in a class where more of her peers have parents who believe this, she becomes much more likely to hold the belief herself: a 25 percentage point increase in the proportion of peers whose parents hold the belief increases a child’s likelihood of holding it herself by more than 10 percentage points.
Furthermore, we see that girls learn more from their girl peers than from their boy peers, and vice versa for boys—exactly what you’d expect if children are learning from their friends.
This also affects children’s test scores: being put in a mathematics class with more peers where parents hold this belief pushes your test score down if you're a girl and pushes it up if you're a boy. That same 25 percentage point change in peers whose parents hold the belief that boys are better than girls at learning mathematics lowers girls’ actual scores, relative to boys’, by more than 33%!
In other words, both boys and girls get the message from their peers about the relative ability of boys and girls—and this belief affects their own performance in exactly the way the message says.
Work by other social scientists suggests that this model—people learning about the world from their parents and peers, which then influences their effort and performance—has traction on issues beyond gender.
There are many other potential sources of stereotyping, for example, by ethnicity and socio-economic status. If, early in life, children are exposed to messages about the mapping from membership in such groups to their ability, this exposure could generate differences in effort, enthusiasm, and aspirations, which could compound over time and generate real disadvantage.
This is a particularly tricky policy challenge, as there are myriad sources—peers, teachers, and the media—through which this kind of information can be transmitted.
So what can we do about this? While it is difficult to identify the peers through which such beliefs are most likely to be transmitted, the good news is that there are many ways to combat the harms caused by exposure to these beliefs.
One is to fight the stereotypes directly. By promoting messages in school (and wider society) that girls can and do succeed in careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), or by naming the stereotype and explaining why it is wrong, we can improve girls' chances of overcoming the harms that such stereotypes cause. We can do similar things for anyone else who encounters the message that they are worse because they belong to a certain group.
Another way to combat this problem is to provide those facing stereotypes with role models. Here the intuition is simple: if a girl gets told she's bad at mathematics because girls are bad at mathematics, simply show her an example (or many!) of girls who are great at mathematics, directly contradicting the stereotype. This policy solution, which can be acted on immediately, has also been shown to increase the likelihood of women choosing to major in economics.
Beliefs are malleable, especially early in life. The big policy lesson we take from this exciting body of research is this: we have to make sure that girls, minorities, and anyone else who faces a potentially harmful stereotype also gets exposed to the message that they too can succeed, perhaps by showing these children examples of success that look just like them.
Between gender and ethnicity, more than half the world is likely to face some kind of negative stereotype during childhood. The more we can avoid having these stereotypes reduce people’s investment in themselves, the richer the world will be.
Alex Eble is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University's graduate school of education, Teachers College. Most of his research has to do with the economics of education in the developing world.
Feng Hu is a professor of economics at the School of Management and Economics, University of Science and Technology Beijing, China. His research interests include labor migration, education, health, and entrepreneurship in China.