UCSB doctoral psychology researcher Michael Mrazek and his team identified a link between the threat of stereotyping and mind-wandering in a study that will be featured in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
According to the team’s research, the act of mind-wandering — described as a “pervasive social phenomenon” — has proven to impair task performance through negative stereotypes. The paper’s primary claim is people will do worse on whatever task they are trying to accomplish if they feel they are being categorized within a negative stereotype.
Mrazek, the study’s lead author, said the article elaborates further upon previous research on the effects of typecasting.
“Stereotype threat occurs when someone performs in a way that confirms a negative stereotype about a group they belong to because of the effect of the stereotype itself rather than the individual’s actual ability,” Mrazek said. “It has already been established that stereotype threat leads to distracting thoughts about both the stereotype itself and task performance, but our research builds on these findings and demonstrates that stereotype threat also leads to more distracting thoughts that have nothing to do with the task. Furthermore, we show statistically that the increase in mind-wandering helps explain why stereotype threat impairs performance.”
Mrazek said he gained inspiration for the paper from co-author Jason Chin’s research emphasizing the more social aspects of psychology.
Chin, a postdoctoral researcher who graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said the mind’s tendency to wander is a phenomenon that plagues most people.
“Sometimes you’re really motivated to do a reading [or something], but you read half a page and realize that you haven’t read any of it,” Chin said. “It’s a strange thing. You’re aware of scanning the page and thinking something else — but if you were truly aware, you would have stopped. It’s this weird gray area.”
According to Chin, mind-wandering is a “socially-created handicap” and can be reduced through mindfulness training: brief exercises aimed at improving focus. Although Mrazek and his team are still in the preliminary stages of research involving the observation of middle school students, his long-term goals include designing educational and testing materials to reduce negative mindsets that contribute to mind-wandering.
Mrazek’s research establishes the many contributing factors and variables that affect mind-wandering, including gender and age.
Collaborator Toni Schmader, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology, said these types of results are often misinterpreted as gender differences.
“Often these group differences in performance are interpreted as difference in inherent ability between the sexes,” Schmader said. “This research suggests that subtle reminders of gender stereotypes — simply taking a math test around other men — can promote mind-wandering in a way that prevents women from performing up to their potential.”
Mrazek said if participants are told that the purpose of an exam is to test the assessment itself rather than to test the ability of the individual, the threat of stereotype is reduced.