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Stereotype Threat and How to Avoid it in Research

In research, it’s easy to assign segment behaviors simply based on gender, age, or race. However, truly connecting with consumers requires understanding deeper motivations that transcend demographics. A unique reason can cause a group to act similarly in certain situations, but the unique reason can easily be masked if a researcher is too quick to assign that behavior to that group by demographic.

A recent Psychology Today article by Dr. Art Markman titled “New Evidence Suggests Men Are Not Better Map Readers” reveals how easy it is to assign behaviors to a single trait.

Previous studies have shown men to be better at following maps than women. Members of the scientific community hypothesized evolutionary arguments to explain the phenomenon, positing that hunting men needed better spatial abilities than gathering women. Markman claims these assumption are specious, noting “there are remarkably few stable sex differences in cognitive abilities”.

He instead refers to a new study that accuses stereotype threat of confounding the data, noting that “it is also possible that something about the way studies are done leads to systematic differences between men and women.”

“Stereotype threat” is the self-fulfilling prophecy that happens when someone is acutely aware of prejudices against a group to which they belong. This knowledge will make them perform as their group is expected to perform, regardless of their actual abilities.

The new studies demonstrate women know society expects them to be poor map readers, and they consequently perform poorly on tests because of this. When the map reading activity is designed in a way that does not activate stereotype threat, women and men perform equally.

Ultimately, market researchers must avoid pitfalls like these, and explore other options before falling back on gender, race, or age expectations to explain research findings. Dig deeper, and other, more insightful conclusions may be found.

W5 specializes in qualitative/quantitative hybrid approaches that offer a unique way to tackle difficult research questions. Qualitative research explores all angles of the research question, with quantitative methods digging deeper into and validating those findings.

Kelsie Martinez, an experienced W5 qualitative practice consultant, has recommendations for researchers looking to ensure that their conclusions do not only focus on demographics. Creative exercises in tandem with strategic lines of questioning can encourage participants to think differently and circumvent stereotype threat.

The next time you think you understand how a certain category behaves, take a second to see if there is a confounding variable (like stereotype threat) affecting your findings.

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