Research suggests polarized groups process gender stereotypes differently

Ever wonder about implicit biases of those around you? - Momo Lin

SFU researcher and MA student Adam Baker is producing experimental research in psychology on stereotypes — partially due to his pursuit of an interdisciplinary degree in cognitive science and political science.

Using state-of-the-art neurological monitoring devices such as electroencephalography (EEG) recordings of electrical activity along the scalp, Baker monitors test subjects’ reactions to words that stereotype a certain group or gender. This is done to invoke an “implicit bias,” which Baker says “can be interpreted as the process in which the brain stores and retrieves semantic associations in memory.”

Baker began as a physics undergraduate at Vancouver Island University, later switching to psychology with a focus in neuroscience, and working as research assistant at the Universities of Victoria and Montreal.

He chose neuroscience partly due to his fascination and respect for the brain as “a resilient fighter,” an organ that might “[lose] its way [or] become injured, but it always tries its best to simply do its job.”

Now at SFU as a member of the Laboratory for Affective and Developmental Neuroscience, Baker conducts research on the reasons we stereotype. His focus is on groups of people separated by polarizing differences, such as those with differing religious beliefs or political affiliations, to determine whether they have tendencies to stereotype and conceal their biases more than control groups.

Baker’s current trials examine gender stereotypes among those with conservative or liberal political orientations. “Subjects were shown word pairs that consisted of a gender category followed by a target word or non-trait stereotypically associated with one of the gender categories,” explained Baker.

Target words like ‘nurturing,’ and ‘aggressive,’ or items like ‘cigar’ or ‘lipstick,’ were some of the words used for his gender stereotype study.

Although the data is far from conclusive, Baker has been able to draw associations between subjects “that had to exert greater cognitive effort to override these associations,” suggesting that some groups “reply on their gut responses, [whereas others may have conflicting] negativities suggesting more deliberate processing of semantic associations.”

The reactions revealed an implicit bias toward the word being presented to certain subjects. By identifying the existence of these implicit biases, and that groups separated by ideology, religion, or politics have fundamentally different biases, Baker can draw conclusions as to why opposite groups have difficulty with communication and compromising on contentious issues.

Baker is working to prove that the reason why long political debates, spanning decades between opposite sides of the spectru, resulting in no progress is not because of their conscious unwillingness for compromise, but because of different moral conclusions drawn due to their implicit biases. If his hypothesis is true, the need for “new methods of investigating discrimination and intergroup bias” will no longer be just a plan for the future, but a policy for the present.

He explained that this deeper understanding of the link between a group’s psychological biases and political opinions has the potential to increase “our effectiveness to raise public consciousness of social inequality and bias.”