Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Gender Stereotypes and Cognitive Neuroscience

Gender role stereotypes have been exaggerated, mocked, and turned on end in the past decade but the fact remains that they are trapped in our collective subconscious. In 1997, researchers at the University of Washington's Cognitive Neuroscience of Language Lab performed a study wherein test subjects were examined with ERPs (event-related potentials, small voltage fluctuations resulting from evoked brain activity) to see how their brains responded to “violations of occupational gender stereotypes”.

Sentences such as the following were presented:
(1) The man prepared himself for the operation.
(2) The man prepared herself for the operation.
(3) The doctor prepared himself for the operation.
(4) The doctor prepared herself for the operation.

“Participants made acceptability judgments after reading each sentence. Sentences like (2) were judged to be unacceptable, but all other sentences were usually judged to be acceptable. Thus, subjects' self-reports gave little indication that sentences like (4), in which a presumed gender stereotype has been violated, were perceived to be unacceptable or anomalous. “

“As expected, the pronoun in sentence (2), which disagreed with the gender a definitionally male or female antecedent noun, elicited a large P600 [syntactic processing in language- L.B.] effect, relative to the condition in which the pronoun and antecedent noun agreed in gender (sentence 1). The question was what would happen in sentences like (3) and (4). Interestingly, pronouns that disagreed with the stereotypical gender of it's antecedent noun also elicited a P600 effect, albeit one with lesser amplitude that that elicited by the outright ungrammatical disagreement. Clearly, our subjects' brains were classifying the stereotype violations as anomalous. This continued to be true even when response-contingent ERPs were plotted: Even on trials on which subjects said the stereotype-violating sentences were acceptable, the pronouns in these sentences elicited a P600 effect. “

“We also observed compelling differences between our female and male participants: Female participants exhibited a much larger-amplitude "anomaly response" to both the definitional and stereotypical gender violations, compared to the male participants.”