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See Inside April/May 2008

How Stereotyping Yourself Contributes to Your Success (or Failure)

People's performance on intellectual and athletic tasks is shaped by awareness of stereotypes about the groups to which they belong. New research explains why— and how we can break free from the expectations of others



Aaron Goodman

You tried so hard. But you failed. You did not pass the test, you performed poorly in the interview or you missed your project goal at the office. Why? Is it that you were not capable? Or could something more subtle—and worrisome—also be at work?

As it turns out, research shows that such performance failures cannot always be attributed simply to inherent lack of ability or incompetence. Although some have jumped to the highly controversial conclusion that differences in attainment reflect natural differences between groups, the roots of many handicaps actually lie in the stereotypes, or preconceptions, that others hold about the groups to which we belong. For instance, a woman who knows that women as a group are believed to do worse than men in math will, indeed, tend to perform less well on math tests as a result.

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