Sexist Stereotypes Show Up in the Brain’s Electrical Activity

Gender stereotypes have a neural signature that shows up in the brain’s electrical activity, at least in certain situations. That’s according to a new study from neuroscientists at the University of Milano-Bicoccia in Milan, Italy.

In the study, participants were asked to read a series of sentences. The participants were told that their task was to look for sentences that ended in animal-related words. What they didn’t know was that mixed into the series of sentences they saw were some sentences that conformed to gender stereotypes and some that contradicted them.

As the participants viewed these sentences, the researchers watched for a certain type of brain activity associated with how expected or unexpected a word is.

For example, consider the following two sentences:

  • I drove my car to work.
  • I drove my car to the grapefruit.

In this case, the ending to the first sentence is clearly more expected given the context of the beginning of the sentence. When you read the two sentences, you probably notice that "work" feels like it fits, while "grapefruit" is somewhat jarring.

Correspondingly, these sentences elicit a certain type of electrical response in your brain that’s stronger for "grapefruit" than it is for "work" – what scientists call an N400 event-related potential. (Don’t worry, there’s no pop quiz at the end.)

Now, take the following two sentences:

  • The chemist put on a nice tie.
  • Here is the commissioner with her husband.

These are two sentences that were actually used in the study. The first is an example of one that fits with gender stereotypes, and the second is one that challenges sexist generalizations.

And, sure enough, the researchers found that on average, the sentences that defied stereotypes elicited a similar response in the brain’s electrical activity as "out-of-place" words. To go back to the "work" vs. "grapefruit" example, the chemist putting on his tie is analogous to driving your car to work, and the commissioner being seen with her husband is analogous to driving your car to the grapefruit.

According to the researchers, this result suggests that "gender stereotypes are processed automatically" and are "deeply rooted in our linguistic brain." So working on how we talk and consciously think about gender is a start, but changing our unconscious neurological responses is probably a more complex matter.