The everyday reality of stereotype threat
Societies everywhere sort people into categories, and children are paying attention.
Not only do they notice cues about gender, wealth, and ethnicity, they also perceive the stereotypes that go with these categories. And it starts early.
What price do we pay for these attitudes?
There are the conspicuous costs: Hate crimes, bullying, blatant acts of social discrimination and injustice.
But there is also a more subtle cost -- the damage caused when we feel ourselves threatened by a negative stereotype.
People are watching, expecting me to confirm their prejudices. Can I prove them wrong?
It isn't so easy because part of our cognitive resources are distracted. Instead of focusing entirely on the task at hand, we feel compelled to monitor the threat, and keep our emotions under control. In some cases we might even feel helpless, or ready to give up.
The problem was first introduced to psychology in the 1990s by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995). They called the phenomenon "stereotype threat," and decades of research have confirmed their original prediction:
People tend to perform worse on tests when they become self-conscious about negative stereotypes pertaining to their own ethnicity or sex.
This has been shown for a variety of academic subjects, including mathematics. It has even been shown for tests of fluid intelligence.
For example, in one study, researchers presented a highly-regarded test of fluid, nonverbal intelligence -- Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices (APM) -- to African-American and Caucasian-American undergraduates (Brown and Ray 2006).
Students took the APM under three different conditions.
Consistent with stereotype threat theory, the African-Americans did more poorly than did the Caucasian-Americans 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 Caucasian-Americans did.
Is this a problem for young adults only? Older, more sophisticated minds who've had many years to observe stereotypes in action?
Apparently not, because the effect has been replicated on young children as well.
Michel Désert and his colleagues presented a version of the Raven's Matrices to kids in France.
The children ranged in age from 6 to 9 years, and their performance didn't vary as a function of the instructions they received -- not if they came from affluent families.
But the story was different for children of low socioeconomic status.
These kids performed more poorly on the Raven's Matrices if they had been told it was a test of their cognitive ability (Désert et al 2009).
So stereotype threat doesn't harm only grown-ups. Nor is it the special nemesis of any one group. Over the years, experiments have shown the threat to affect a wide range of individuals, including
The effect on test-taking is bad enough. But what if stereotypes do more than undermine test performance? What if they also interfere with a student's ability to learn in the first place?
There's good reason to think this is true (Rydell et al 2010; Taylor and Walton 2011).
First, consider working memory -- your mind's ability to track multiple pieces of information at once, and stay focused. We need good working memory skills to pay attention, follow directions, and execute plans. But working memory is a delicate thing, easily frazzled when we feel threatened. In experiments, people reminded of negative stereotypes have suffered immediate dips in working memory performance (Pennington et al 2016). Researchers suspect it's because they divert precious working memory resources to keep their emotions under control, reducing their capacity to handle other information (van Ast et al 2016).
Second, consider how stereotypes might affect a student's motivation. People who feel targeted by negative stereotypes are more likely to discount the validity or fairness of tests (Lesko and Corpus 2006; Klein et al 2007). Who likes school under these circumstances? And even positive stereotypes could cause trouble. When individuals believe they belong to a group with "natural ability," they might put in less effort (Stone 2002).
Can this theory explain all achievement disparities?
No. There are many reasons why some groups outperform others.
For example, kids raised by traditional Chinese parents may have several cultural advantages that increase their chances of academic success.
And in an 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.
The conflicting results may someday be resolved. For instance, feeling intrinsically powerful tends to protect individuals from the effects of stereotype threat (van Loo and Rydell 2013; Pillaud et al 2015). So it's possible that some failures to replicate reflect differences in perceived power among those taking the tests.
But regardless, there are good reasons to be cautious. We shouldn't assume that stereotype threat accounts for all social disparities in achievement.
So how do we protect kids from the effects of stereotype threat?
Obviously, we can't wave a magical wand and remove harmful stereotypes from the public consciousness. But there are some concrete steps we can take to help.
Have you ever taken a standardized test that began by asking you to answer questions about your personal background?
That might be a good way for the test makers to collect demographic data, but it's bad for the student. 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).
Experiments suggest that we can counteract stereotype threat by presenting students with positive role models -- extraordinary achievers who defy social stereotypes.
In some cases, reading about such high achievers helped students perform better on tests (McIntyre et al 2005; Bagès and Martinot 2011).
In other cases, researchers didn't observe a boost in test performance -- not when experiment volunteers had reason to feel personally threatened by a stereotype. But presenting role models still had a beneficial effect: Students subsequently reported a greater interest in pursuing a career similar to that of the role models (Shapiro et al 2012).
When people reflect on their values, it seems to have a calming effect. They may feel less threatened by failure, reducing test anxiety.
When researchers tested this tactic on college undergraduates, they found that students became less vulnerable to stereotype threat (Shapiro et al 2013). Merely writing about a cherished value -- and describing a situation that illustrated how that value mattered to them -- reduced 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).
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; Bagès and Martinot 2011).
For more information, see this article about the "entity" and "growth" theories of intelligence.
Given the evidence that stereotypes can sap working memory, it makes sense to help children maximize their working memory potential. For more information, read these evidence-based tips.
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Content last modified 7/2017
image of contemplative boy by tamckile / flickr
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