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Smith Researchers Document How Stereotypes Affect Brain Activity, Performance

A new study by a group of Smith researchers documents for the first time how certain regions of women’s brains react to positive and negative stereotypes about women’s abilities and how, when a woman is told she will not succeed, her brain can take on an emotional burden that inhibits her ability to achieve.

Associate Professor of Psychology Maryjane Wraga, fellow researchers Molly Helt ’05 and Emily Jacobs ’04, and current student Kerry Sullivan ’07 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.

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

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).

The Wall Street Journal recently noted the research and quoted Wraga about the study’s findings: “Even if you say the stereotype is rubbish, it has an effect on an unconscious level.”

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and performed at Dartmouth College’s Brain Imaging Center. For more information about the study, visit www.smith.edu/newsoffice/releases/06-038.html.

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