What Your Email Address Says About You

W H A T  Y O U RYou know people may judge you by the way you look. You can probably guess that people may also judge you by your email address,  especially if it’s something embarrassing or revealing. But you might not realize that your email address can also cue people into other aspects of your identity that can then be used to stereotype you and even influence your behavior.

The first set of research projects I ever worked on examined stereotype threat and lift effects in the context of email addresses. I was an undergraduate student assisting on projects devised by Margaret Shih (now at UCLA) and Todd Pittinsky (now of Stony Brook University). To this day, I think these are very cool studies, and I credit them with making me fall in love with psychology.

Some basic findings from this line of research:

  • When someone knows you are female based on your email address (e.g. amy@gmail.com), they assume you’re better at verbal skills and worse at math than when they think you’re male
  • When your email address suggests that you’re Asian (e.g. chang@gmail.com), people also assume better math and science skills–unless you’re in Canada, in which case the effect is reversed

In some later studies, we found that you can influence Asian women’s performance on math tests by subtly reminding them of either identity (female or Asian). It seems that making an identity salient also makes people think about the associated stereotypes.

This really makes you think about the power that stereotypes have. They don’t just affect how a person feels but may actually cause them to behave and think differently. It doesn’t even matter if people agree  with the stereotypes or not–just being part of a culture that endorses them is enough. And, people are not usually even aware that they’re being influenced, so it may be hard to fight.

On the other hand, some stereotypes are positive (like the one in the studies about Asian people being good at math). So maybe one avenue to take is to help people think of themselves in the most positive possible terms depending on the situation, coupled with working to challenge stereotypes through word and deed.

An interesting study recently showed a different example of stereotype threat/lift: Bankers behaved just as honestly as everyone else in the study, until they were asked about their profession and subtly reminded that they were bankers. The authors choose different words to describe the phenomenon but share the same conclusion as the psychological research: Culture, whether through its stereotypes or its expectations, can influence us in profound ways.