Category Archives: Stereotypes

Sciencesexism: A question from Wendy Barnaby

Are women and men making different contributions to science? I was asked this question by broadcaster Wendy Barnaby in 2011. I still stand by my answer I gave her then. It would be a huge advance if we could overcome gender stereotypes in science and I believe we can overcome them through science. Science is a phenomenon that can shape attitudes and beliefs as strongly as religion and political ideologies. Science is famed for getting rid of superstitions and for having pointed out the fallacy of many fondly held beliefs. It can also make us aware of the fallacy of gender stereotypes.

Carl Larsson Continue reading Sciencesexism: A question from Wendy Barnaby

But isn’t there at least a grain of truth in gender stereotypes? Our cognitive ability to categorise and polarise is strong and happens without us being aware of it. It has advantages in making instant judgements of social affiliation. Sometimes these are a matter of life or death: Family or fiend? Friend or foe? There is a cognitive advantage in this tendency in aligning yourself to an in-group and differentiating yourself from an out-group. The advantage is to allow you to act quickly when you are under time pressure, and have no time to acquire information about individuals.

There is also a major disadvantage. We are primed unwittingly to activate stereotypes when there is no time pressure at all. For example, the question “Are women and men making different contributions to science?” exerts a strong pressure to say ‘yes’. What instantly springs to my mind is the widely held belief that women have more empathy, are more communicative, are more cooperative and less aggressive than men. After all I want to be loyal to my in-group. So it is compelling to conclude that women do science in an altogether nicer and friendlier way than men. But, hang on – I can afford the time to reflect. I can ask is this true of me, for example? And the answer immediately turns into a ‘no’. I know about myself that I am far less empathic and far more aggressive than I let on. Also, I am constantly meeting men who have masses of empathy, who are keen to cooperate and who hate to be aggressive and confrontational. As scientists I have always found women and men to be equally curious, committed and determined to answer the questions they have set themselves. The scientists I know all love to gossip about other scientists, gloat when their competitors fail, rejoice when their friends succeed while trying to have nothing but friends.

Stereotypes are very powerful. They can make us conform to them when we don’t even notice. But we can see through them as soon as we take the time to reflect. Science instils in us the need to be sceptical of current beliefs. Good scientific practice is to uncover and work against existing biasses.

Image credit: Carl Larsson: Holiday Reading. Sotheby’s Auction catalogue Scandinavian Paintings. London 10 Dec 2014.

Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: Cordelia, you just published a review article in Science, His brain, her brain?  where you argue that it is far harder to interpret gender differences in the brain than people think. And it’s a call for more rigorous science in the field. Now, your paper with Gina Rippon, Rebecca Jordan-Young and Anelis Kaiser earlier this year lays out in some detail what rigorous research designs would actually involve. I would love to know a bit more about why you wrote it.

Mary Cassatt (1878) Woman reading Le Figaro: Courtesy of www,

Cordelia: We wanted to write something positive about how research in this area could be done better, so we got together to write a paper that would be helpful to researchers, editors, reviewers and science communicators. We wanted to make a constructive contribution. After all, there has been a lot of controversy in this area,

Continue reading Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: You can say that again! The papers that report gender differences are almost always suggesting that women’s brains work differently, aka less well. So half the readers say, “At last there is some hard evidence for differences that are blindingly obvious”, and half say, “Of course we know that women and men are equal and there are no real brain differences, and this research must be hopelessly biased.” I expect you call the first position “essentialist”, because it presumes that being female means being one kind of thing, being male another, forever. It’s the forever bit that makes it suspect.

Cordelia: Happily, the perspectives are definitely not that polarized. One thing that’s worth stressing though is that criticisms of this area of research don’t stem from a belief that it’s intrinsically problematic to look at the effects of biological sex on the brain. But implicit assumptions about female/male differences in brain and behavior do influence research design and interpretation. They do this in ways that can give rise to misleading conclusions that additionally reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

Uta: It would be strange to rule out this type of research on the grounds that it is bound to reinforce gender stereotypes. We can be aware of their influence and take them into account. But we need to be fearless when we read Nature’s book. It does not always tell us what we’d like to hear. I worry about our tendency to be ultra-critical when the findings are against our fondly held beliefs. But isn’t science exactly about being able to overturn fondly held beliefs?

Cordelia: I certainly agree that we shouldn’t rule out particular kinds of research because we may not like the conclusions. The concern is with conclusions that are unwarranted – an issue of ‘scientific correctness’ rather than ‘political correctness’ – and the goal is not to be ultra-critical, but to make visible the implicit assumptions that are guiding research.

Uta: We tend to be less critical when a paper appears in a prestigious journal because we can assume that there has been a stringent peer review process. You discuss the controversial Ingalhalikar et al.’s structural connectome article published in 2013 in PNAS – a reputable journal.

Cordelia: This article measured brain connectivity in a large sample of 8-22 year olds, and found greater intra-hemispheric connectivity in males and inter-hemispheric connectivity in females, on average.

Uta: This sounds like a good sort of gender difference, at first glance it has nothing to do with a gender bias, but it certainly is grist to the essentialist mill. I remember when I first read this paper I was thinking, so there is now some evidence for an essentialist type sex difference, and we can start to think what it means.

Cordelia: In our article, we make the case that researchers are often working from an implicit ‘gender essentialist’ model, that assumes that the brains and psyches of females and males are highly distinct, and differences between them are natural, fixed and invariant across time and place. This subtly influences research design and interpretation, and the Ingalhalikar et al. study was a good example of exactly that.

Uta: So what’s wrong with that?

Cordelia: In an earlier study, the researchers had reported behavioural sex differences in executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills and social cognition. This was in a larger sample from which these participants were drawn. But these differences were very modest: 11 of the 26 effect sizes were null/d<0.1, and the largest was d=0.33. Yet despite the substantial behavioural similarity between the sexes, the researchers interpreted their anatomical findings as underlying profound behavioural differences between the sexes, without actually testing for brain-behaviour correlations.

Uta: And what did you think of their interpretation of the brain differences?

Cordelia: They speculated that “[m]ale brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”

Uta: Perhaps they couldn’t think of what else the differences could be due to.

Cordelia: There were two other possibilities they might have considered, but didn’t, presumably because of the essentialist frame. One is that the female/male interconnectivity differences are a brain size effect, rather than a sex effect. As you know, the male brain is on average about ten per cent larger than the female brain. They also didn’t pay any empirical or theoretical attention to the possible influence of gendered experiences on brain and behaviour. I happened to be sent the article by a journalist for comment, and I wrote back to her:

“Ironically, even though the research from this group provides strong evidence for behavioral similarities between the sexes, provides no evidence that any modest behavioral sex differences are associated with neurological ones, and offers no information about the developmental origins of either, we can probably anticipate that this article will soon be drawn on by popular commentators as evidence that ‘hardwired’ sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

Uta: This is precisely what happened.

Cordelia: Yes. The front page of the Independent, for instance, headlined with “Scientists discover the difference between male and female brains: Study reveals variation in hardwiring which may explain skills gap between women and men”.

It’s worth pointing out though that this particular example was unusual for the role of the researchers themselves in making reference to ‘hardwiring’, and in making especially incautious reverse inferences to concepts far beyond any measured behaviours (like motherly intuition). Usually this is a job left to the popularizers.

Uta: Hardwiring usually means that there is a biological cause for a behaviour. But, as you say, it could be the other way round. The hardwiring could be a result of behavioural practice. There are plenty of examples of how learning changes the brain.

Cordelia: Yes, and long before the buzz about neuroplasticity, feminist neurobiologists were writing about this ‘entanglement’: the fact that the social phenomenon of gender (which systematically affects an individual’s psychological, physical, social and material experiences) is literally incorporated, shaping the brain and endocrine system. One of the recommendations of our article is for researchers to attempt to incorporate the principle of entanglement into their research models, including more and/or different categories of independent variables that include ways of capturing the role of the environment.

Uta: We clearly need more thoughtful research in this area: You and your co-authors have made a very constructive start with your paper.

Cordelia Fine is the author of Delusions of gender.  She is ARC Future Fellow at Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School and the Centre for Ethical Leadership, University of Melbourne.


Better judge a book by its cover? by Martin Freundlieb & András Molnar

Better judge a book by its cover? The dubious nature of stereotypes

Martin Freundlieb and András Molnar are PhD students in the Cognitive Sciences Programme at the Central European University Budapest. 

Continue reading Better judge a book by its cover? by Martin Freundlieb & András Molnar

Most of us would agree that image 1 © 2010-2014 Payton-Marie payton-marie.deviantart.comstereotypes are often incorrect, that they fuel social discord and promote inequality. But few realize that even the most politically correct people will – unconsciously – show clear patterns of stereotyping. Are social stereotypes almost an indispensable part of the human nature? Are we all helpless victims to their power and influence on our everyday behaviour? Are positive stereotypes a good thing?

Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room.” — William Hazlitt (1903)

As social beings, everyday life requires us to make a multitude of decisions, for example ‘Do I trust this stranger who is offering me a ride?’, or: ‘Whom should I try to sit next to during the math exam tomorrow?’ We are continuously collecting information with all of our senses in order to get a picture of what is happening around us. We are equipped with a marvellous apparatus that soaks up the information we need to navigate the social world. But we are facing a problem of capacity: like any other organ, our brain requires a lot of energy and time to ‘digest’ all available information.

However, in most situations we simply do not have enough time and/or leisure to ponder on a problem or to make a careful judgment. Instead, we then have to rely on shortcuts. This means we base our decisions on very simplified and generalized ‘truths’ that can be more or less accurate. Stereotypes provide a good example of these kinds of shortcuts in social interactions. Now as long as these simplified beliefs or stereotypes are good estimates of the actual state around us, we are doing well. But strongly biased beliefs and extreme prejudices can lead to disastrous outcomes. In some cases, stereotypes harm both the person who holds the stereotypic views by causing unnecessary hatred and fear, and the person who is the target of the stereotypes by causing exclusion and the so-called stereotype threatbox 1

But do stereotypes also exist outside of our conscious awareness?

In the late 1990’s a clever instrument (the IAT) was invented which can in fact reveal the unconscious or implicit forms of stereotyping.

Combining the IAT with questionnaires that measure the extent to which people deem themselves to be prejudiced or not (an explicit measure of stereotyping), Greenwald and colleagues could examine the overlap between these self-judgments and their unconscious behaviour. They found that most people who would verbally disavow any form of prejudice, nevertheless behaved as if they did when taking the IAT test. In other words: there seems to be a gap between what even politically aware people say and how they act.

box 2Now one could easily jump the gun and declare that implicit stereotypes are a dangerous, evolutionary flaw, which we should drop sooner rather than later. But are they always bad?

A more differential view reveals that  stereotypes exist for good reasons and can indeed be advantageous in several ways: they save cognitive resources while helping us to understand the world by providing quick-and-dirty categories.

For the price of being inaccurate sometimes, we get fast and automatic evaluations. Continuously. And if the cost of being inaccurate is marginal then this can actually be a great deal. Stereotypes can also ground our group belonging: they can strengthen our social bonds to people who share our stereotypic beliefs. Furthermore, even if there are no ‘allies’ around, stereotypes could be useful by enhancing learning to avoid unfamiliar and potentially threatening people.

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However, all of these advantages shrink into nothing if the stereotypes are far from reality. That is why responsible governments fight so rigorously against racism or any kind of negative stereotyping. But what happens if somebody is the target of a positive stereotype: is that therefore a good thing? The answer – though it goes against our intuition – is a definite “no”.

Positive stereotypes are nothing but the hotbed for prejudice and almost as harmful as negative stereotypes

“Asians are good at math” is a positive stereotype – and is rarely considered prejudice and politically incorrect. Yet, positive stereotypes can be harmful. For example, they can raise unrealistic expectations. Later, when these expectations are not met – for instance, it turns out that a particular Asian boy has ‘only’ average math skills –, this boy may suffer a loss of self-esteem, and will probably cause disappointment to others in his environment. But the real insidious nature of positive stereotypes is revealed only after a closer look: a research group around Aaron Kay could show that positive stereotypes can facilitate the erroneous assumption of ‘natural’ causes for group differences and, ironically, increase the likelihood of applying also negative stereotypes to the same target group. For this reason responsible governments should also pay attention to positive stereotypes and reduce their 3

Are stereotypes only influencing us or can we also influence our stereotypes?

As profoundly as we seem to be entangled in both positive and negative stereotypes we are not completely helpless and we can overcome them. Research on conflict management has indicated that perspective taking, or understanding of the world from an other’s point of view, seems to be quite an effective tool in order to decrease strongly biased beliefs.

According to a research group around Adam Galinsky the underlying mechanism can be explained: When you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else (taking on her perspective), the target literally becomes more like you. And as most of us carry a decent portion self-esteem, the stereotyped other will be viewed less negatively. Interestingly, positive stereotypes too were mitigated by this method. Basically, it is as if the positively stereotyped other is compared to somebody we deem to be quite normal: ourselves.

Of course, this process is highly simplified and it might only work in the sterile environments of laboratories. But in any case, the method of taking on another’s viewpoint provides an easy step into the right direction – namely, of becoming more aware of the social shortcuts we use every day.

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