Are You Experiencing Ex-Mormon Stereotype Threat?

Recently the concept of stereotype threat has made it onto my radar.  I think this particular concept might possibly explain some of the source of the anxieties I’ve been experiencing in relation to the church lately (e.g. I’ve been having panic attacks every time I have to interact with a ward member or discuss church-related issues with family members). Read on if you think you might relate…

What is Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threat is the anxiety or concern caused when a person is in a situation that has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group.

The concept of stereotype threat made it onto my radar last week when NPR did a really fascinating story about how stereotypes can drive women to quit science. The NPR story reported about the recent findings of a group of researchers (Mehl and Schmader) from the University of Arizona about the gender gap in math and science. To study this phenomena, the researchers attached something called electronically-adapted recorders (EARs) to both male and female scientists. The EARs recorded 70 soundbites of conversation a day for 30-second intervals every 12 minutes. This provided the researchers with a good random sampling of the way male and female scientists talked with other male or female colleagues.

Follow-up interviews with the test subjects found that female scientists often reporting feeling disengaged about their work after having a a conversation with a male peer. Disengagement is a key predictor of the possibility that someone might leave a career, so the scientists dug into their recordings to find out what was causing this phenomena. Listening to the recordings, the researchers found:

When female scientists talked to other female scientists, they sounded perfectly competent. But when they talked to male colleagues, Mehl and Schmader found that they sounded less competent.

One obvious explanation was that the men were being nasty to their female colleagues and throwing them off their game. Mehl and Schmader checked the tapes.

“We don’t have any evidence that there is anything that men are saying to make this happen,” Schmader said.

But the audiotapes did provide a clue about what was going on. When the male and female scientists weren’t talking about work, the women reported feeling more engaged.

For Mehl and Schmader, this was the smoking gun that an insidious psychological phenomenon called “stereotype threat” was at work. It could potentially explain the disparity between men and women pursuing science and math careers. …

When there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling. …

“For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype,” Schmader said.

All this worrying is distracting. It uses up brainpower. The worst part?

“By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent,” Schmader said.

Mehl and Schmader think that when female scientists talk to male colleagues about research, it brings the stereotype about men, women and science to the surface.

You don’t have to be a woman or an ethnic minority to experience the anxiety caused by stereotype threat. Everyone is a member of some social group for which a negative stereotype exists. Which leads me to the next section of this essay…

Negative Stereotypes about Ex-Mormons

Ask any current or former member of the church and they will confirm for you that Mormons have very clearly defined cultural stereotypes about ex-Mormons. There’s the standard “Sunday School” answers for why anyone could leave the church: they left because they were offended or they left because they wanted to sin.

Here’s a few more:

  • They left because they never had a deeply rooted testimony in the truthfulness of the gospel. They didn’t receive a spiritual confirmation of the truth. They were converted to the church and not the gospel.
  • They became too focused on things that were not essential to their salvation.
  • They stopped doing the things that would invite the Spirit into their lives (reading the scriptures, praying, going to the temple, etc.).
  • They were deceived by Satan’s lies (anti-Mormon literature, the philosophies of men).

And on and on.

And, of course, you also have the stereotypes about how people behave after leaving the church. There’s the stereotype about those who “leave the church but can’t leave it alone,” the angry, bitter apostates whose only desire is to fight against the church and attack faithful believers. Or there’s also the idea that people leave the church and descend into utter depravity and misery.

My purpose here is not to refute these stereotypes, although I do find them inaccurate and offensive. My point is just to mention that these stereotypes exist—and, like all stereotypes, they have the effect of reducing a complex group of people and their individual experiences to a biased, flattened caricature of reality.

So, Do Ex-Mormons Experience Stereotype Threat?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve been experiencing anxiety when I’m around my ward members or when I have to talk about the church with family members. I experience problems like increased heart rate, dizziness, and stress hormones flushing through my body. I’ve also developed a fairly mild case of social anxiety disorder—a chronic fear of being judged by others or being hyper-aware of my actions when with a group of people. It’s causing me to avoid social situations. (Like I can’t even go for a walk outside with my husband without feeling anxious about encountering a neighbor approaching from a distance.)

I’m starting to wonder if stereotype threat could possibly explain this phenomenon. I realized this during a Facebook conversation I had today. I was talking with someone about how to manage visiting teachers and she gave me the advice to just be real about who I was. She talked about how having visiting teachers has actually been a good way for her to help believers deconstruct misconceptions about ex-Mormons. I responded:

I really, really want to be like you and show Mormons that you can still be an ethical, pleasant person with genuine reasons for believing in the things you believe or acting the way you act. You know—a human being.

I think you’re absolutely right that the best approach is to just be respectful and authentic at the same time. I think the real challenge for me is that I’m suffering from “stereotype threat,” which is the anxiety that gets produced by imagining that other people will view you in a negative way because of your social group (in this case ex-Mormonism). What I mean is that while I am comfortable with the new life path I’ve chosen for myself, I anticipate that everyone else will be highly critical and judgmental about it (which has definitely been the case with some people). So, I basically have come to expect the worst possible reaction from everyone about my decision to leave the church. And that makes me feel extremely emotionally vulnerable and unsure about being my honest, authentic self around them—for fear of disapproval. Unlike a person’s gender or race, you can “hide” your religious beliefs and I’ve been passing as a believing Mormon to avoid displeasing people for so long that it’s been difficult adjusting to just being out and real about it all, you know?

One thing that helped me to manage my anxieties in my first few months away from the church was to repeat a mantra to myself: “I will not take personally the reactions that other people may have about my decision to leave the church.” You can’t control how other people respond to you and it is futile to try to please everybody, but it can be hard to let go of the desire to make everyone happy sometimes. You can’t let other people to cause you to abandon your sense of self.

I’ll get there eventually!

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This blog entry is cross-listed at Oxymormon Girl. Feel free to visit the site to read other posts. (I don’t necessarily cross-post everything I write over there on this blog. Just the stuff I think this audience would like.)