It’s well-known that labeling kids with negative stereotypes can hurt their academic performance by creating low expectations. But a new research has found even positively pigeonholing kids – as “brains” or intellectually gifted, for instance -- can also undermine their learning.
University of Illinois psychologists, writing in the journal Psychological Science, found sweeping pronouncements and broad generalizations about the likely success of a social group – of boys or girls, for example – actually hurt both sexes’ performance on a challenging activity.
Researchers said telling kids that certain social groups have a “natural talent” for some abilities – such as “ girls are very good at this task” – may lead them to think success depends primarily on innate talent and has less to do with things they can control, such as their own efforts to learn.
"Some children believe that their ability to perform a task is dictated by the amount of natural talent they possess for that task," said lead researcher Andrei Cimpian. "Previous studies have demonstrated that this belief can undermine their performance.”
For the study, psychologists conducted two experiments with 4- to 7-year-olds and found children performed more poorly after they were being told success on a given task was more common among certain social groups -- regardless of whether the children themselves belonged to that group.
"These findings suggest we should be cautious in making pronouncements about the abilities of social groups such as boys and girls," Cimpian said. "Not only is the truth of such statements questionable, but they also send the wrong message about what it takes to succeed, thereby undermining achievement – even when they are actually meant as encouragement."