Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Psyche Out

Today's post is a test. There will be questions in a moment. Pay attention.

Take a look at these two pictures:

Woman A:

Woman B:

Now, without stopping to think about it, using only your first, most immediate reaction, tell me something: which of these women is better at math?

Odds are you picked Woman A. It's true that in general attractive people are rated more favorably than unattractive people on a variety of characteristics. Further, it's true that these expectations can prod individuals into performing to match. Yet, both of the women in my example are- roughly speaking- equally attractive.* In all likelihood you picked Woman A as the superior mathematician because she's dressed more professionally. This gives you some clues about what skills she may possess and, likewise, the garb of Woman B gives you some clues as well.

Or does it?

The logical fallacy here is that clothes don't make the woman, and relying on clothes to make this kind of choice is chancy at best. While there is certainly a stereotype that women in skimpy clothing are likely to be stoopid, that sterotype has no necessary basis in fact. As it happens, there have been several notable disproofs of the concept. So choosing Woman A is no more logical than choosing Woman B. Now, let's try something different: let's say that Woman A took a math test as she's dressed now and then changed into a bikini before taking a second math test. How would she perform then?

Well, believe it or not, she would probably perform more poorly.

In a recent article in the craptacular Psychology Today we hear of a study that tried this precise experiment with disturbing results:

In a study where people were asked to solve math problems, there was no difference in how well men and women scored—when everyone was fully dressed. But when subjects were required to perform the calculations in their bathing suits, the women suddenly fared worse than their male counterparts. They were too busy wondering how they looked to crunch numbers correctly.

Now, I haven't seen the study itself and can find no trace of a reference in the Psychology Today article** but the results are sobering. Dress may influence performance and this impact is likely different for males and females. The Psychology Today article blames this effect on the subjects being "...too busy wondering how they looked to crunch numbers correctly," but I wonder if it's something different: stereotype threat.

The idea is simple: you belong to a group that is stereotyped as being poor at some task. You are then asked to perform this task in a situation where you are made to recall that stereotype. As a result, you become so wound up with anxiety over not confirming the stereotype that your performance suffers. And, of course, you end up comfirming the stereotype you're worried about in the first place. Why do I think sterotype threat may be at work here? Well, there are several simple reasons. First, I think it reasonable to expect that wearing a bathing suit activates a "female" identity for women but not necessarily a "male" identity for men. Second, women are already stereotyped as being worse at math than males. Finally, we already have evidence that women respond to stereotype threat.

Now what does this mean and why am I talking about it? Well, aside from the fact that it gives me an excuse to post/link pictures of women in bikinis, I am interested because of what it may imply about schooling. Yes, I said schooling. Now, I don't want to speak for other academics, but at my University*** there is a certain part of the year when students come to class dressed rather poorly. Specifically, many of the men come dressed as though they live in dumpsters and many of the women dress in a fairly sexualized way.**** I'm not much of a prude but this has always bothered me a little, if only because it either says something negative about how students value their education or makes me fear for my career.***** The thing is, this new research gives us even more dramatic reason for concern: is it possible that when our female students dress this way it not only produces the risk that we will treat them differently, but also that they themselves will perform differently? Is it possible that dress can hinder education?

My wife suggests that such an issue would be most acute when students are younger, and I agree. Ironically, this forces me closest to a conclusion that school uniforms may be a good idea after all. At least then everyone might have a fair chance when they take their test.

In our lives we have to confront all manner of challenges- I just think it a shame that one of the biggest is when we psyche ourselves out.******

* Opinions may vary, but I don't care. For purposes of this exercise I am the supreme authority on attractiveness.

** Way to go, guys.

*** Drek State University. Motto: "Vos es a gallo."

**** I really can't find a picture that captures it. This image is, if anything, far too tame.

***** "Okay Drek, you're going to call on her and NOT glance at her chest. You can do this! I know it's hanging out there like a McDonald's sign but you don't have to look. Look at her eyes! Look at her eyes! FOCUS!"

****** Woot! How's that for a weak ending to a post?

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Blogger Marf said...

I still don't like the idea of school uniforms.

Friday, May 16, 2008 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger kristina b said...

Hi there. I started a comment to this, but it got long so I made it into a blog post. I challenge some of your ideas here, but in all I'm really glad you posted this. It's important that people discuss it openly and rationally! So, thanks, and I hope you have a moment to read my thoughts.

Saturday, May 17, 2008 10:36:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Drek, your footnote (5) was right on the mark: "Mister Troll, can you help meeee?" *bends forward, smiles hopefully*. I couldn't believe how often this happened. Eventually I decided that it wasn't a conscious behaviour, but was something that had been learned over many years (but what do I know).

Interestingly, I haven't seen that behaviour at all up in the Great White North.

Monday, May 19, 2008 6:41:00 AM  
Blogger afkafka said...

As soon as I looked at the pictures I could guess what the comparison was supposed to make me look at, so I made a point of looking for anything else, and I noticed their expressions make a fairly clear contrast too. Doesn't really affect your point, but the woman in the suit certainly looks a lot more engaged and present. The woman wearing underwear has a pretty vacant look, probably so nobody can be distracted. It might have been a neater test to have those expressions switched just to prove nobody was going to pay any attention to them.

Also, if you're wondering why you're getting comments on really old posts, it's because one of your readers who sent you the mutilated version of origin of species linked your blog to me and I'm reading it backwards via the "recent posts". It makes me very conscious that you have no 'archive' links but it also has the charming effect that schafly appears to be getting smarter as I keep reading.

Sunday, July 11, 2010 7:55:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey afkafka,

Yeah, I suspect that facial expression makes a difference but I should note that the pics I included were not from the experiment at all, but rather were just random images useful for an example. So, an inadequate level of matching was, of course, used.

As for the archive thing: what do you mean? If you go to the main blog address and scroll down past the recent posts you'll find monthly archive links. Weirdly, though, if you're on a specific post page those links disappear, but that's a quirk of blogger that I don't know how to fix.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 7:05:00 AM  

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