By Jill Iman, Director of Evaluation, Research and Implementation Science

Setbacks

Imagine this Situation

Imagine that both Jada and Levi are in a middle school science class and each of us fails the mid-term test. Do you think Jada and Levi will each interpret that F the same? And, what will their classmates think about the cause of their poor performance when word gets out? Importantly, research tells us that not only is Jada more likely to attribute this failure to just not being smart in science, but her classmates are also more likely to believe this. In contrast, Levi is more likely to think the test was unfair and not a true reflection of his ability in science, thinking he will do better next time, as do his classmates.

Spontaneous Stereotypic Attribution Bias

These types of experiences—having one’s setbacks attributed to something about who you are (e.g., your intelligence) as opposed to something going on around you (e.g., an unfair test)—is a form of spontaneous stereotypic attribution bias, or the tendency for people to interpret the success or failures of individuals in stereotypic-consistent ways. Put differently, because there are negative stereotypes about women in STEM fields, failures by women tend to be seen as caused by internal reasons (e.g., low ability), whereas men’s STEM setbacks tend to be perceived by external causes (e.g., bad luck).

These types of attributions are then related, for example, to lower intentions for the negatively stereotyped group to persist in a given field (i.e., women in STEM). When your peers and maybe even you are believing that you are not smart in biology because of setbacks, why persist? Last year, a paper that I collaborated on with Jennifer LaCosse and Dr. Denise Sekaquaptewa further explored this (published in Psychology of Women Quarterly; accessible here).

Perception Matters

And, while research has told us for quite some time that attributing your own personal setbacks to external causes can be important for self-esteem maintenance and motivation, this work begs the questions of what type of consequences we might be contributing to when we are systematically attributing the setbacks of others to either internal or external causes based on social identities (e.g., because of an individual’s gender or race).

To me, among many things, this line of research is also a reminder to be kinder to ourselves when encountering setbacks AND when encountering the setbacks of others; to press pause and honestly reflect on how I am thinking about those setbacks and what types of assumptions I might be making about the cause.

Look at Yourself

Remember to be kind to yourself and to consider how the world in which we all live and how those that we surround ourselves with may or may not be creating an environment that fosters these types of harmful attributions of self and others.

What assumptions might you be making based on identities about someone that you’re working with? How might you be interpreting the successes or failures of those in your life (i.e., interpreting a business failure as something fundamental about who an individual is vs. a bi-product of what the market is doing)?

Next Up

More to come on this! What does this mean for program development, implementation and, more broadly, our work?