Stereotypes sway sports performances

By Zachary Binney

If you’re looking to trash talk an opponent, you might want to work some negative stereotypes into your rhetoric, a new study shows.

A group of researchers led by Sian Beilock, an assistant professor and director of the Human Performance Lab at the University, showed that athletes who read negative stereotypes about themselves performed worse on simple tasks than those who read innocuous material.

The study, which appeared in the August 2006 issues of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, was co-authored by William Jellison of Colgate University; Robert Rydell of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Allen McConnell of Miami University; and Thomas Carr of Vanderbilt University.

Researchers used three experiments to investigate the effects of stereotypes on well honed skills in athletes. In the first test, the researchers asked a group of expert male golfers to complete a series of simple putts on an indoor green. Then the golfers were all asked to read a description of the experiment; half of the descriptions mentioned that women are generally better golfers than men.

After reading the descriptions, the golfers tried another series of putts. In the first putting task both groups performed almost identically, but in the second putting task the golfers who read the stereotype performed significantly worse than those who didn’t.

The researchers weren’t certain why this occurred. Though previous research shows that people aware of a negative stereotype while taking a math test do worse than those who are not because thinking about the stereotype takes up some of their “working memory,” the well honed putting tasks required little temporary memory storage.

In their second experiment, the researchers gave the stereotype to all golfers. They then asked half the golfers to putt while trying to pick out specific words from a tape playing in the background. The other half were simply told to complete the putts.

The distracted golfers performed significantly better than those who weren’t distracted, indicating a new phenomenon to researchers.

“Our research suggests that the disruption of these well learned motor skills is caused by athletes thinking too much about skill processes that are best left outside of conscious awareness,” Beilock said.

“We believe that individuals become concerned with conforming to the negative stereotype and, as a result, they try and control their performance in order to ensure an optimal outcome. Unfortunately, this…can backfire,” she explained.

To look deeper at the results of their second experiment, the researchers repeated the test using racial stereotypes. In addition, distracted golfers had to listen to race-related words in the background. The researchers achieved the same results as in the second experiment, indicating that the sound distraction was actually helping the golfers cope with the stereotypes.

Perhaps, Beilock said, this discovery will lead to new techniques that athletes can use to improve their performance in high-stress situations.

“It may actually be good to try and take one’s mind off of the step-by-step execution of their well learned motor skill” by singing a song or counting backwards, Beilock said.

Beilock hopes to continue researching how athletes can overcome these unwanted effects of stereotypes. For now, trash-talkers and athletes alike may want to pay attention to her results.