Science, as it is wont to do sometimes, has landed like an innocent little butterfly on the shoulders of a pretty dismal finding: appealing to certain gender stereotypes can be just as confidence-boosting for men as it is confidence-sapping for women, even and especially when those stereotypes have no basis in truth. The mere thought that men are somehow better equipped to navigate the wilderness of America's highway system, for example, was enough of a call-to-arms fantasy for men to step up and be better at not driving them and their womenfolk into a Texas Chainsaw Massacre trap.
Researchers at Durham University in England enlisted 40 male and 40 female undergraduate students to play a computer game (Mist, from the sound of it) that tested their navigation skills. Subjects were tasked with locating a hidden object using colorful three-dimensional shapes as landmarks or by assessing the geometry of a virtual room's walls. Half of the participants were told, suggestively, that the results of their gaming experience would be used to evaluate gender differences in navigation skills.
Men, as it happens, have a slight edge over women when it comes to using geometric shapes to navigate, a useful skill to have if we all lived in a first-generation Nintendo console, but otherwise useless in the real world. Predictably, then, the male participants performed better at the geometric shape navigating than their female counterparts. However, researchers also noticed a spike in male performance among those groups who were reminded about the gender implications of the study. Spurred by the need to live up to a stereotype of Vasco de Gama proportions, men who were subtly reminded that they should be better navigators suddenly became better navigators.
Researchers didn't seem to notice that a stereotype threat was preventing women from navigating the virtual wilderness, but they guessed that maybe the navigation task they set before their subjects could be too confounding to evoke any significant drop in performance.