The Negative Consequences of Threat: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of the Neural Mechanisms Underlying Women’s Underperformance in Math

When women are confronted with negative stereotypes about women and math ability, they underperform on math examinations, and activity in brain regions associated with depression and social rejection is seen.


Women are traditionally underrepresented in computation-heavy STEM fields, and face negative stereotypes concerning gender and ability in these areas. In studies of women’s underperformance in math, it has been found that “stereotype threat” can have a significant impact on ability. Stereotype threat occurs when women’s performance on a difficult math test decreases after being told that women underperform on the test. Previous studies have found that individuals operating under stereotype threat exhibit decreased short-term memory capacity as well as increased performance anxiety.

Here, the authors investigate the biological underpinnings of behavioral changes induced by negative stereotypes about women’s math ability. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis, which relies on levels of blood oxygen to measure neuronal activity, was used to understand how the brain responds to these negative stereotypes. Undergraduate women were randomly assigned to a control or “threat” group and were asked to complete two sets of math problems, and the fMRI analysis was conducted on both groups to examine which brain regions were activated.


Women who were reminded of the stereotype that there are gender differences in math ability underperformed on a math examination, in comparison to women who did not receive this reminder.

  • For control group women taking two sets of math examinations, neural activity increased over time in brain regions associated with math computation.
  • For women reminded of negative stereotypes surrounding women and math ability before a second math examination, a similar increase in neural activity was not seen in the same areas.
  • For women reminded of negative stereotypes about gender and math, neural activity increased in a brain region associated with processing emotions. Neural activity in this region has been linked to negative social feedback including social rejection, as well as clinical depression.

In short, these findings suggest that negative gender stereotypes trigger brain activity linked to processing negative social information, potentially at the expense of task-related neural processes.


28 female undergraduates at Dartmouth College were selected for this study based on a high positive response to the question “It is important to me that I am good at math.” Participants were then put inside the functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner and randomly assigned to a control or “threat” group and asked to complete a set of difficult math problems. For the threat condition, participants were told they would complete a task to assess their “math attitudes” as “research has shown gender difference in math ability and performance” in order to induce stereotype threat. Participants then categorized words as being related to math, arts, men, or women to reinforce the threat. Participants in the control group were told their “political attitudes” were being assessed, and were asked to categorize words as related to liberals, conservatives, unpleasant, or pleasant. Following the completion of these categorization tasks, all participants completed a second, similar set of math problems.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to quantify areas of neuronal activation and assess potential differences between the control and “threat” group. Further, performance on the math assessment was used as a behavioral outcome.

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