Cognitive biases, gender stereotypes and wellbeing

  • Group of young women walking together

Cognitive biases are automatic, predictable ways of processing information. Certain biases are associated with processing stereotype information (e.g. people might be quicker to process information that falls in line with gender stereotypes). Other biases are observed when people interpret ambiguous social situations (e.g. in an ambiguous social situation you could interpret other people behaving positively or negatively towards you). Negative biases for social information have been linked to anxiety and depression.

Young women, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, show some of the highest risk for anxiety and depression. Our project aims to explain elevated anxiety/depression in young women through exploring potential links between different cognitive biases. No published work has yet explored this, but we have pilot data suggesting that reinforcing/challenging gender stereotypes affects the same wider biases for social information that we have previously shown to predict wellbeing and symptoms of anxiety/depression. Specifically, the project focuses on developing an experimental paradigm influenced by the cognitive bias modification literature to examine whether challenging gender stereotypes can directly or indirectly affect mood, wellbeing and wider attitudes towards the world.

Through this project we aim to:

  • Develop new psychological models 
  • Improve understanding of how stereotypes affect emotional resilience and aspirations

Previous psychological research into stereotyping has either relied on stimuli like adverts (which may be an inappropriate way of challenging stereotypes in society), or on stimuli developed without the input of the target audience. This may mean that existing research is inappropriate for its purpose, or not representative. Throughout this project we are endeavouring to collaborate with the target population of young women, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular working closely with the Young Women’s Trust. This will allow us to develop more effective and representative stimuli and content in our experiments and studies. Involvement of lay researchers in designing and managing research in this way has previously been shown to improve its quality, removing academic blind-spots and better targeting pertinent community questions (Thornicroft, G., & Slade, M. (2014)

Thornicroft, G., & Slade, M. (2014). New trends in assessing the outcomes of mental health interventions. World Psychiatry, 13(2), 118-124

Project lead

Dr Stefano Belli

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