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Fear of the known? The effect of peer relevance and gender on women’s math performance under threat


The goal of the current research was to investigate the impact of peer comparisons on female participants’ math performance when the peers varied on comparison relevance and gender. Specifically, the two studies presented here explored the question of whether male peers, who are seen as less relevant, can serve as peer role models (PRM) for female participants taking a math exam under stereotype threat conditions. Comparison relevance was manipulated by exposing participants to math-talented male and female peers who were from participants’ school or from another school. The key finding from Study1 demonstrated that exposure to relevant male peers lead to lower math performance compared to less relevant male peers. Study 2 replicated this key finding using a different manipulation of relevance. Together the findings indicate that when male peers are viewed as less relevant (and thus less threatening) they can serve as PRMs for female participants in “stereotyped” math situations.

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  1. 1.

    The schools used in Studies 1 and 2 were chosen because they were both public and similar in size to the participants’ school. Pretesting also demonstrated that participants had no preconceived notions about the type of students who attended those schools; hence, the students from these schools should not be particularly relevant to the participants in the current research.

  2. 2.

    Beyond the outcome measures described in the main text, participants also responded to a few additional questions and statements.

  3. 3.

    When these participants were included in the math performance analyses the interaction involving PRM relevance and gender was not significant, t(64) = 0.76, p > .45.


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Writing of this article was supported by a Grant from the National Science Foundation (DRL# 1535117). I thank Krystal Carrillo, Danielle Palomar, Marie Ross, Stephanie van Stralen, Brad Weisz, Jessica Winet, and Robert Wyatt for their help with data collection and to Vito da Rosa and David Tobias Vargas for their feedback on earlier versions of this article. This article is dedicated to Cooper.

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Correspondence to David M. Marx.

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Marx, D.M. Fear of the known? The effect of peer relevance and gender on women’s math performance under threat. Soc Psychol Educ 22, 1197–1214 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-019-09519-0

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  • Performance
  • Peers
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Social comparison
  • Relevance