|Judit Polgár, chess grandmaster|
An analysis of girls’ performances in 12 US school chess tournaments has found they tend to underperform when playing against boys. The researchers Hank Rothgerber and Katie Wolsiefer believe this is the first real-life demonstration in children of a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”. This is when a person fears their performance will be used to bolster stereotypes about their social group. This fear then undermines their performance.
Most examples of stereotype threat have been demonstrated in social psychology labs. This has led to concerns that the phenomenon may not be so relevant in real life, especially since some studies of real exam grades have failed to reveal any evidence of the effect.
Rothgerber and Wolsiefer first surveyed 77 female school chess players and found they were familiar with the stereotype that men are better at chess than women (a stereotype reflected in the fact that there is only one woman, Judit Polgár, in the world’s top 100 chess players; see pic).
Next, the researchers analysed the outcomes of chess matches played by 219 girls (aged 5 to 15) in 12 tournaments rated by the United States Chess Federation. These official tournaments provide a pre-rating for each player based on their past performances, and a post-rating adjusted in line with their tournament performance. For comparison, the outcomes of tournament matches played by 195 boys were analysed.
The girls lost more often to boys than they should have done given their and their opponents’ prior skill ratings. Overall, they performed at 83 per cent of their expected success rate when playing boys. “Evidence of stereotype threat among young children, then, cannot be dismissed merely as an artefact of, or limited to experimental paradigms”, the researchers said.
Girls particularly underperformed (relative to their skill rating) when playing a male opponent with a higher rating than them (in this case they performed at 56 per cent of what was expected of them, on average); and when playing an older boy (managing an average of 73 per cent of their expected success). Younger girls were more susceptible than older girls to underperformance against boys. In contrast, there was no evidence of underperformance among the boys; in fact they often exceeded expectations. “This reinforces our interpretation that there is something specific to the interaction between female and male competitors that produced these performance deficits in females,” said Rothgerber and Wolsiefer.
The researchers’ interpretation was supported by their further analysis of the girls’ participation in future tournaments. Those who underperformed more against boys in the initial analysis tended to participate in fewer future tournaments during the ensuing year, consistent with the idea that stereotype threat can encourage people to disengage from an activity when they feel threatened.
Rothgerber and Wolsiefer said their results suggest interventions to combat stereotype threat are needed at an early age. In the context of girls playing chess, they said possible remedies include providing female role models and reframing the game as a problem-solving activity. “Whatever the method of intervention, the findings indicate that for females to fully experience the cognitive and emotional benefits of chess, the earlier the intervention, the better”, they concluded.
Hank Rothgerber and Katie Wolsiefer (2014). A naturalistic study of stereotype threat in young female chess players. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430213490212
“We conclude that the greater number of men at the highest levels in chess can be explained by the greater number of boys who enter chess at the lowest levels.” (pdf)
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