Headlines are meant to capture attention and draw people in to read what is hopefully worthy news. The best are funny, punny, alluring, and perhaps even misguided. Headlines, or rather media in general, shapes public perception. And whether we want to believe it or not, perception is usually more important than reality. Could headlines also shape identity?
Words matter. Whoever said, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” likely never read a psychology book. In theory, it is a lovely defense, but our brains work in ways that we can’t always control.
So, we can in practice say that words don’t hurt, or that words don’t affect us, but the subtlety of communication – whether by words, tone, context, omission, body language, type of praise — can, will, and do affect our unconscious minds.
We call this type of communication, micromessages: small, subtle, unconscious messages we both send and receive when we communicate with others. Micromessages can occur in interpersonal communication, group communication, and mass communication (i.e. media), and can be either positive (microaffirmations) or negative (microinequities).
Understanding the Power of the Small
Micromessages are a manifestation of implicit bias, which are the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. We all have bias. Each and every one of us. We can even hold biases that do not reflect our conscious personal beliefs and values. (Curious what biases you might hold? Take the Implicit Association Test, to learn more about your unconscious mind.)
These micromessages that are flying around in our world, and in between one another, accumulate in potent ways. They can accumulate to either an advantage or a disadvantage, and ultimately affect one’s self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is the belief one has in their ability to accomplish a task. It answers the question, “Can I do this?” Self-efficacy affects behavior, as it influences how one is motivated, persists, and achieves. Note that this is very different than self-esteem, which answers the question, “How do I feel about myself?,” which has been found to have no affect on achievement.
Watch a short video to better understand unconscious / implicit bias at the bottom of this post.
Labels can be a Heavy Burden
We all have labels. Some are prescribed: such as gender, race, and familial titles like daughter, sister, etc. Some are chosen: such as engineer, world-traveler, and athlete. Other labels are assigned: such as smart, bossy, bull-in-a-china-closet, etc. (Those may or may not all be labels assigned to me throughout my life.)
Sometimes labels serve us, and sometimes they don’t. While on one hand, they can help us build positive identities, on the other, they can cause doubt, and pain. In many ways, labels can become a self-fullfilling prophesy, whether we want to believe those labels to be true or not. When people tell us over and over again what we are to them, or when we treat others based on the labels we hold for them – even if we don’t express those labels directly, micromessages are communicated, and they can accumulate to affect our beliefs about ourself and what we can do.
Given this, we have a tendency to lean into the labels that are on us, whether we like them or not, and whether we recognize it or not.
In a common exercise to teach this principle in a workshop, five volunteers come to the front of the group. They are assigned a prompt, such as “You have 1 million dollars to spend on improving student engagement in STEM,” handed five markers to write on a flip chart, and given three minutes to write down as many ideas as possible on how to spend the money. Everyone grabs a marker, and they dive in!
Each person is listing examples, writing on the chart paper, building on one another’s ideas, welcoming others to share their thoughts, and the experience is positive, upbeat, and fast paced. At the end of the three minutes, they have a poster full of great ideas.
Next, each person is handed a slip of paper with instructions. It says:
- A label will be tied around your head. You can’t see it, but your teammates will see it.
- During the following activity, you are to treat each of your teammates based on the label they’ve been assigned, without telling them what their label says.
The labels can include a variety of options, yet my favorites are: Leader, Joker, Invisible, Clueless, and Combative.
Then, they are given the same set-up — five markers, chart paper, a prompt, and the same time limit. This time, the prompt is something like, “You have 5 millions dollars to spend on improving education,” with more money and for a more general topic. Supposedly it should be easier to come up with more ideas than before, right?
What happens is astonishing and usually very entertaining.
Most people immediately hand their marker to the leader and ask them to write things down. The leader – who is usually someone chosen who is a bit shy and reserved – waffles and is extremely hesitant to take the responsibility of writing down everything for the group, finally succumbing to the group’s pressure.
It usually takes about 45-60 seconds for everyone to actually start sharing ideas, compared to before, where they all jumped right in.
When the Joker speaks, everyone laughs and tells them how funny they are – sometimes acknowledging the ideas and sometimes writing them down. When Clueless speaks, people scoff and blow them off saying they don’t know what they are talking about. When Combative speaks, people are on alarm and appear threatened, and more of their ideas tend to be written down. Invisible, just keeps getting edged out. People stand in front of them, and completely ignore what they say. As the time elapses, Invisible stops trying and steps back – usually with their arms crossed and a look of despair on their face. Often times, Clueless gets frustrated and grabs a marker to start writing down their ideas, to which the Combative often takes it out of their hand and marks through what they’ve written.
As time is called at three minutes, the audience is in a roar, and the volunteers are quietly stunned – as they look over and compare what they accomplished in round 2 versus round 1. With the labels, their productivity was incredibly low and not nearly as rich, collaborative, inclusive, and fun as without the labels. Sometimes, some of the volunteers marginalized in the second round are visibly upset.
While the activity was staged and over-exaggerated, this type of group behavior happens all the time. In a matter of minutes, people played into the roles that people were suggested through a multitude of cues and messages. Their self-efficacy was affected, and ultimately their behavior. They performed to the level of expectation held for them.
Labels can change our behavior.
Impact is greater than intent
Let’s assume we all come from a place of good intent, where we don’t actively wish harm on our colleagues, our family members, or our students. The problem is, the impact of the micromessages we send are more powerful than our intent.
If I intend to encourage my brother to find a job he likes by offering a few examples and connections, but my implicit bias is that he is lazy because he’s not had a job in years, then my tone and words will most likely reflect my bias – even though it was not my intention at all. In this case, my brother could receive the unintended bias that I think he is lazy, it might trigger his own self-doubts and insecurities – or something else, and before you know it, Thanksgiving is ruined and he doesn’t speak to you for over a year. This may or may not have actually happened.
So what do we do? We increase our awareness of what our biases might be, and become vigilant to take care in how we communicate. We also train ourselves to remove those negative and judgmental labels we hold for others.
Why do we go to so much effort? Because we care about people and our relationships with them.
What are the headlines about you?
I’ve often remembered an article that was published in the local paper about me when I was fifteen. While I was in the local paper dozens of times in my high school career, none of them stuck with me like this one.
This particular article was published Mar 25, 1998, in the weekly free paper, called the County Record. Not quite the New York Times, but certainly big time for a freshman student. The article captured that I was named Miss Orange, Texas (or something like that), a nascent powerlifter, and top of my class.
For weeks, when adults in the community saw me, they’d say things like, “Well, there she is! Miss Brains, Brawn, and Beauty.” It was embarrassing but I learned to lean into the brand, because it clearly gave me some serious small town notoriety.
Thus, the assigned trio of labels late in my freshman year, had a tremendous influence on not only my high school career, but my life as a whole. Nineteen years later, and the onerous idea that I need to maintain this “winning combo” has lingered.
What did not strike me until recently, was a totally different view. While teaching a workshop one day, I was walking around observing the small-group discussions. What I heard someone say reminded me of this headline, and uncovered a new truth: that the subtle and perhaps unintended message in this headline, is that this combination is rare and most notably, unexpected.
After all, headlines are the hook, right?
Did Vicky’s headline on this post intrigue you to read more? If so, ask yourself why. (Share your reflections in the comments!)
Managing the Polarities of Brains, Brawn, and Beauty
Like a magnet, society holds many polarities: the state of having two opposite or contradictory tendencies, opinions, or aspects.
It is rarely enough to be just smart, or just athletic, or just beautiful/handsome, for both men and women. However, for women, any combination of these pushes against gender norms and expectations, as each are polarized from one another and can create tensions for identity, and misunderstandings from others. So, for much of the population, if women don’t look or act like June Cleaver or Betty Draper, (i.e. when someone doesn’t fit our internalized stereotype), unconscious bias can be triggered, and micromessages ensue.
Sure, “times are a-changin,” as I might hear when back home in Southeast Texas, but the implicit biases around gender are pervasive and powerful — and both men and women are equally guilty.
For example, about 70% of more than half a million Implicit Association Tests completed by male and female citizens of 34 countries revealed expected implicit stereotypes associating science with males more than with females (source). This is a significant contributor to the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
Fast STEM Facts:
- Female students’ achievement in mathematics and science is on par with their male peers and female students participate in high level mathematics and science courses at similar rates as their male peers, with the exception of computer science and engineering (NSF, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2016).
- Women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences (NSF, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2016).
You might think that we live in a “fitness first” world now, where it’s cool to be active and in shape. If you are brave, google “fit women,” and see what comes up. The images are all of thin women who are beautiful by most standards.
Fitspo, short for the “fitsporation” generation, has ensued an onslaught of cute photos with fit women posing with an inspiring quote overlaid on the image. Back in my fittest days, even I fell prey to self-promoting fitspo memes. I’m not proud of that.
The result of this wave of half naked imagery, is that aesthetics is paramount to athleticism. So you can be beautiful and fit, but to be athletic without focusing on beauty often earns you a whole new set of new labels.
A couple of super cool women friends of mine, tired of this insanity, literally created their own label and lifestyle brand: Beefpuff Barbell. Chelsea Savit and Natalie Hanson are the poster-women, in my book, of the Brains, Brawn, and Beauty labels. They are incredibly intelligent, savvy, kind, and beautiful women who also happen to be champion powerlifters. Here is how they define what it means to be a beefpuff: “An individual who fearlessly, continually and zealously grows in muscle, power, mind, and soul, with an assured and unbreakable sense of true self that is unhindered by the expectations and judgments of others (source).” Yep, these two beefpuffs are awesome.
There there should be no denying that women are expected to be beautiful, or at least go broke trying. The global cosmetic market was 460 billion USD in 2014 and is estimated to reach 675 billion USD by 2020 growing at a rate of 6.4% (source).
Women are regularly told to smile more, so that they look more attractive. Phenom Serena Williams faced this in a famous showdown with a male reporter after yet another win at the US open. The reporter said he didn’t understand why she wasn’t smiling and laughing like a giddy teenager. She suavely slammed down the request harder than she plays on the court, saying she was tired and wanted to go home to rest for her early morning practice.
As a retired powerlifter after 18 years of lifting and sporadically competing and winning a bit myself, I can’t tell you how many times I was told over the years to “not get too buff,” reminded to not be stronger than the boys/men in my life, told that I look prettier when I’m not under the bar or in the gym, and told to spend less time training so not to take away from my studies and career.
Polarities? Bias? Indeed.
Now it must be said, that many of us do not succumb to labels, stereotypes, and bias – at least we think we don’t. However, remember that micromessages accumulate. If micromessages are being collected in our brain on a scale (picture the scales of justice), at some point, if enough micro inequities register, it can tip the scale, and then lower our self-efficacy, and then potentially our behavior. No one is immune.
Breaking the cycle
So what do we do?
- Discover and reflect on the biases you hold. Take a few Implicit Association Tests.
- Challenge stereotypes when you hear them or see them. On the spot. Please don’t let those stale stereotypes be passed down to the next generation. Watch the TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie to learn about the Danger of the Single Story. Best quotes: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” “Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
- Reflect on the labels you have for people and how that might affect how you interact with them, and really question how the label serves them.
- Uncover the polarities in society. Think about which typically has more power, why that is, and how it serves us as individuals, and as a society.
- Look past the headlines we hear about others, and seek to know and understand who they are as a unique individual.
Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.