The negative consequences of threat: A functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of the neural mechanisms underlying women's underperformance in math
This experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the brain regions engaged as women performed math in the absence and presence of stereotype threat. Female undergraduates who highly identified with math completed a series of math problems while in an fMRI scanner (to establish baseline levels of brain activity) then completed a task to assess attitudes towards math because "research has shown gender differences in math ability and performance" (stereotype threat) or to assess political attitudes (control). All students then completed a second set of math problems. Results showed that math performance improved slightly from the first to the second set of problems in the control condition, but students in the stereotype threat condition performed somewhat worse on the second compared with the first problem set. fMRI data showed that women in the control condition showed heightened levels of activation in a network of regions central to math reasoning and performance, such as the angular gyrus. In contrast, women in the stereotype threat condition showed higher levels of activation of the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a region that has been implicated in the processing of negative information. These data show that stereotype threat might undermine performance because brain regions necessary for mathematical reasoning are not activated to the degree necessary for success. Instead, neural structures associated with the processing of negative information receive heightened activation under threat. This study is the first to implicate patterns of neural activation as a possible mechanism in stereotype threat.