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Jan. 3, 2006

Don't Tell Her She Can't Succeed

Smith College study reveals how stereotypical messages
affect women's brains.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – When told she will not succeed, a woman's brain can take on an emotional burden that inhibits her ability to succeed, according to a Smith College study that documents, for the first time, the brain regions affected by positive and negative stereotypes.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to document the brain activity in 54 women between the ages of 18 and 34, after they read a stereotypical message about women and then performed a spatial reasoning task. The task required them to view pictures of objects and describe what the objects would look like from different, imagined perspectives.

The group exposed to a negative stereotype made 6 percent more errors than the group exposed to a neutral message, and 14 percent more errors than the group exposed to a positive stereotype. No difference was found in the response time across groups.

Poor performance in the negative stereotype group corresponded to increased activity in brain regions associated with increased emotional load. By contrast, the better performance of women in the positive stereotype group was associated with increased activity in visual processing areas and complex short-term memory processing areas.

“The results demonstrate the remarkable power of culture in determining performance,” said Maryjane Wraga, associate professor of psychology at Smith, and lead author on the study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Despite the differences in performance among the groups exposed to different messages, the messages seemed to operate on an unconscious level, according to Wraga. When asked whether the messages had affected their performance, most participants reported it had not influenced them at all.

Moreover, the fact that women in the control group performed worse than those in the positive group suggests that women are not necessarily performing at their top ability under neutral situations.

Researchers used a spatial reasoning task and, in particular, one that required mental rotation, because spatial reasoning is thought to play a major role in men's superior performance on measures such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

In addition to Wraga, researchers included Smith alumnae Molly Helt and Emily Jacobs, and Smith undergraduate Kerry Sullivan. Helt is now a graduate student in the Department of Neuropsychology at the University of Connecticut, and Jacobs, a graduate student in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and performed at Dartmouth College’s Brain Imaging Center.


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