Controlling what you eat, how often you study or whether you engage in addictive or criminal behaviour might be harder if you belong to a group targeted by negative stereotypes or prejudice, according to a University of Toronto study, published in the March issue of Psychological Science, which has begun to explore this research area.
Through three related experiments funded by the American Psychological Foundation, researchers from the University of Toronto and New York University (NYU) found that the psychological pressures experienced by people who belong to racially or socially stigmatized groups interfere with their ability to exhibit self-control when entering a threatening environment or after being made aware of their stigmatized status.
"Our study views self-control as a centrally important yet limited resource that underlies many behaviours," says Michael Inzlicht, assistant professor in U of T's Department of Psychology. "It's like a muscle in that you can exercise it to achieve your goals, but each time you do, you deplete the amount of self-control available to you. Eventually, you reach your limit and need to rest to avoid a lapse of control. For people exposed to stereotypes or prejudice, the anxiety and stress they feel in those situations increases the demands on their self-control, making it harder to keep overall goals in mind and to act appropriately."
In the first experiment, Inzlicht and his colleagues read hypothetical scenarios, which had been previously proven through focus groups to contain racial ambiguities involving African-Americans, to 38 black students at NYU.
"Our data demonstrate that the students who exhibited sensitivity to prejudice and discrimination also reported having less self-control of their academic lives," Inzlicht says. "They found it harder to take effective notes, create quiet study spaces and keep to a study schedule. We also know from correlating their responses with their SAT scores that this pattern isn't related to their academic ability -- something about the experience of being stigmatized taps that limited source of self-regulation and interferes with their self-control."
For the second experiment, 21 black and 21 white NYU students were randomly divided into control and test groups. The control group was told that they were going to take a test related to psychological factors; the test group was told that the test would diagnose their verbal strengths and weaknesses, a statement designed to trigger negative stereotypes that people hold of African-Americans. Students were then assigned an unrelated task -- distinguishing between the semantic and visual meaning of words printed in four colours on a card -- that measured their ability to concentrate.
"Black students who were told that the test would assess their abilities had significantly lower scores than their peers in the control group or the white students in either group," Inzlicht says. "Threatening them with a negative stereotype may have made them concerned with how their behaviour would appear, conveying a positive impression or whether the assessor was exhibiting prejudicial behaviour. Sustaining this higher state of awareness requires more exertion of self-control, leaving them less able to control their focus and complete the other task."
For the third experiment, 61 female NYU students were divided into control and test groups. All participants were asked to squeeze a hand grip as long as they could to demonstrate their baseline ability to regulate pain and to persist in completing the task. Control group members were told that they were going to take a verbal test, while the test group was told that they would take a math test. In addition, half the participants in each group were told that their test had been shown to assess genuine ability, creating a threatening situation for women in the math test group by activating the stereotype that woman are not as strong in math as men; the other half were told that the test had not shown gender differences in the past.
"Women who were told the math test would assess their ability held the hand grip for significantly less times than those in the other three groups," Inzlicht says. "The study's results demonstrate that the relationship between prejudice and self-control is translatable across stigmatized groups and that it interferes with an individual's ability to regulate various activities."
Future studies will explore the neuropsychology of stigma and self-control using electroencephalogram recordings, and the relationship between suppressing negative emotions and self-control. In the meantime, Inzlicht is hopeful that his research may help to inoculate individuals against the effects of negative stereotypes.
"Past research has shown that teaching people about how stereotyping helps them to resist these threats -- as does conceiving of intelligence, ability and personality as fluid rather than fixed qualities," he says. "Talking openly about prejudice, stereotypes and stigma helps us to understand their effect on members of both minority and majority groups, and prevents this negative behaviour from going unnoticed."
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