Project Implicit

[Press release from EurekaAlert]

Implicit stereotypes – thoughts that people may be unwilling to say or not even know that they have – may have a powerful effect on gender equity in science and mathematics engagement and performance, according to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The international study involving more than half a million participants in 34 countries revealed that 70 percent harbor implicit stereotypes associating science with male more than with female.  Moreover, countries whose citizens stereotyped more strongly had larger sex gaps favoring boys in eighth-grade science and math achievement.

Implicit stereotypes may contribute to continuing underachievement and under participation among girls and women in science compared to their male peers.

“We found a general tendency, across every country that we investigated, that people on average have an easier time associating science concepts with male, rather than with female,” said lead investigator Brian Nosek, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

“We correlated our data with a measure of actual science achievement among eighth graders in those 34 countries and found that in the countries with the largest sex gap – where the boys were performing much better than girls in math and science – there also was strongest implicit stereotyping of science as a male endeavor.”

The science and math achievement scores across nations came from the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and were compared with the implicit stereotype data collected through Project Implicit led by these researchers publishing the study.

Surprisingly, there was no sex gap in the tendency to implicitly stereotype science as male. Male and female study participants showed equally strong associations of science with male.

Among nations represented in the study, the United States falls roughly in the middle of the pack in stereotyping science as male, and in the actual achievement of boys compared to girls at the eighth grade level.

The study is part of Project Implicit, a publicly accessible research and education Web site at which visitors can complete the Implicit Association Test to measure their own implicit associations. The test is available for a variety of topics involving gender, race, religion and politics.

In Project Implicit’s more than 10 years of existence, more than 10 million tests at the Web site have been completed by visitors around the world. A dozen years of research and hundreds of published studies suggest that people have implicit belief systems that may differ from their declared beliefs. These implicit beliefs are related to behavior, such as, interracial behavior, voting, and even drug use. A recent meta-analysis led by Anthony Greenwald, one of the researchers on the current study, provides evidence of the relationship between the IAT and a variety of behaviors from more than 100 studies.

“Participants are often surprised to learn that they may have unconscious biases involving gender or race or religion that are quite different from their stated beliefs,” said Fred Smyth, a co-investigator on the study and research assistant professor at the University of Virginia. This divergence between implicit and explicit beliefs, and the relation of both to behavior, suggests that behavior is influenced both by deliberate, explicit beliefs and by automatic, implicit reactions.

“Culture is a powerful force for shaping the beliefs and behavior of its members,” Nosek said.  “Even if one’s explicit beliefs change, the cultural residue may persist in memory and continue to influence behavior.”  This presents a challenge for addressing sex gaps in scientific engagement.

Over the past decade, Nosek, Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University, and test creator Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington have led the development of the Implicit Association Test to assess mental associations that may be different than what people know or say about themselves. For the gender and science study they worked with colleagues at universities and institutes across the globe.

For additional information about the study see:

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