How your child’s beliefs about people can hinder his performance in school...and life
© 2008-2010 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Does your child believe that “people like me” don’t do well academically?
If so, he may suffer the consequences of stereotype threat.
What is it?
In the mid 1990s, psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson introduced the theory of “stereotype threat,” the idea that people perform worse on tests when they become self-conscious about negative stereotypes pertaining to their ethnicity or sex (Steele and Aronson 1995).
For instance, an African American kid might be anxious about his academic performance because he doesn’t want to confirm a stereotype that portrays Blacks as academically inferior. As a result of his anxiety, his performance deteriorates.
Lest this sound airy-fairy, there is a lot of experimental evidence confirming the effect. For example, a recent study administered Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (APM), a highly-regarded intelligence test, to African American and Caucasian undergraduates (Brown and Ray 2006). Students took the APM under three different conditions.
• In one condition, students were given the standard instructions for taking the test.
• In another, students were also told that the APM was an IQ test.
• In a third condition, the APM wasn’t presented as a test at all. Students were told that APM was a set of puzzles and that the researchers wanted their opinions of them.
Consistent with stereotype threat theory, the African Americans did more poorly than did the Caucasians when the APM was presented as a test (conditions 1 and 2). When the APM wasn’t pitched as a test, African Americans performed just as well as Caucasians did.
Stereotype threat can affect people from all walks of life
Originally, Steele and Aronson applied their theory to understand why African Americans perform more poorly on academic tests. But over the years stereotype threat theory has been applied to other situations.
For instance, stereotype threat has been found to affect women (on tests of stereotypically “male” subjects, like math) and the elderly (on tests of memory).
And an experimental study has also identified stereotype threat in White males (Aronson et al 1999). In this study, White male undergraduates were given a math test. But first, some of the students were reminded of the stereotype of the Asian math whiz. White students who had been reminded of the stereotype performed more poorly than did controls.
Beyond test anxiety: How stereotype threat may prevent kids from learning...and steer them away from good careers
It also appears that stereotype threat influences more than the way we take tests.
There is evidence that people under stereotype threat don't learn well in the first place (Rydell et al 2010).
And stereotype may affect our whole approach to education—-and even influence our choice of careers.
• People who suffer from stereotype threat are more likely to discount the validity or fairness of tests (Lesko and Corpus 2006; Klein et al 2007). Presumably, this can make people less motivated to attend school.
• Students don’t work as hard when they believe they belong to a group with “natural ability” (Stone 2002)
So can stereotype threat explain all achievement disparities? Clearly not. There are many reasons why some groups outperform others.
kids raised by traditional Chinese parents
may have several cultural advantages that increase their chances of academic success.
And in an upcoming analysis of research testing the effects of stereotype threat on women's math achievement, Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary (2012) report that many studies have suffered from methodological flaws. When the researchers confined analysis to studies that met their methodological standards, only 1 in 3 studies detected an effect.
Stoet and Geary are concerned that psychologists and policymakers have embraced stereotype threat as the Last Word. Eliminate stereotype threat, and you'll eliminate the gender gap that exists for exceptional achievers in mathematics. No need to try other approaches, like new instructional techniques.
So there are good reasons to be cautious. We shouldn't assume that addressing stereotype threat will eliminate all social disparities in achievement.
What we can do
Obviously, you can’t single-handedly blot out stereotypes in the public mind.
But there are some concrete steps you can take to help free your child from the effects of social stereotypes.
Teach your kids about the effects of stereotype threat
Simply understanding this phenomenon can help defuse its effects.
In one study, students performed better on tests after being told that their test anxiety could be the result of negative stereotypes and has "nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test" Johns et al 2005).
Encourage your child to adopt an incremental or “growth” theory of intelligence
When kids believe that
intelligence is a fixed, unchangeable entity, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of stereotype threat.
Conversely, embracing a “growth” theory of intelligence seems to inoculate students against the effects of stereotype threat (Aronson et al 2002; Good et al 2007).
For more information, see this article about the
“entity” and “incremental” theories of intelligence.
Give kids fairs tests—and reassure kids that tests are fair
When kids are left believing that tests aren’t fair, their motivation is undermined.
Don’t remind students of group identity before they take a test
When the Educational Testing Service stopped asking students to state their sex at the beginning of the AP calculus test, female students improved their scores (Danaher and Crandall 2008).
Offer kids stereotype-defying role models
One study deliberately invoked stereotype threat in female undergraduates (telling them “women perform worse than men on math tests”) and then provided some of the students with articles about successful, professional women (McIntyre et al 2005). Others were provided only with articles about successful men.
After reading the articles, students were given a math test.
Female students who lacked role models performed worse on the test than did male students.
But the performance of female students who had read about successful women did not differ significantly from the performance of male students.
Aronson J, Fried CB, and Good C. 2002. Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125.
Aronson J, Lustina MJ, Good C, Keough K, Steele CM, and Brown J. 1999. When White Men Can’t Do Math: Necessary and Sufficient Factors in Stereotype Threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29-46.
Brown RP and Ray EA 2006. The difference isn't black and white: stereotype threat and the race gap on Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices. J Appl Psychol. 91(4):979-85.
Danaher K and Crandall CS. 2008. Stereotype threat in applied settings re-examined. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 1639-1655.
Johns M, Schmader T and Martens A. 2005. Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women's math performance. Psychological Science, 16, 175-179.
Klein O, Pohl S, and Ndagijimana C. 2007. The influence of intergroup comparisons on Africans' intelligence performance in a job selection context. The Journal of Psychology, 141, 453-467.
Lesko AC and Corpus JH. 2006. Discounting the difficult: How high math identified women respond to stereotype threat. Sex Roles, 54, 113-125.
McIntyre RB, Lord CG, Gresky DM, Ten Eyck LL, et al. 2005. A social impact trend in the effects of role models on alleviating women's mathematics stereotype threat. Current Research in Social Psychology, 10, 116-136.
Rydell RJ, Shiffrin RM, Boucher KL, Van Loo K, and Rydell MT. 2010. Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]
Steele CM and Aronson J. 1995. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.
Stoet G and Geary DC. 2012. Can stereotype threat explain the sex gap in mathematics performance and achievement? Review of General Psychology.
Stone J. 2002. Battling doubt by avoiding practice: The Effect of stereotype threat on self-handicapping in white athletes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1667-1678.
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