Stereotype threat: A summary of the problem

Note: This is the first of three posts about stereotype threat, which is the idea that negative stereotypes about a particular group can cause members of that group to underperform. Future posts will cover ways to try to reduce the effects of stereotype threat, and how stereotype threat might influence ally work. There will also be a post with a transcription of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s thoughts on the obstacles he’s had to overcome. These posts also link with an earlier post of mine on the implicit biases that we all have.

As scientists, we like to think that we are measuring things accurately, and tend to be disturbed at the idea that we might be systematically biased in our measurements. So, the idea that we might systematically be underestimating the abilities of a large portion of our students is something most of us would find disturbing. But this is what the data on stereotype threat suggests: because of negative stereotypes of certain groups (e.g., that women are not good at math as men, that blacks are not as intelligent as whites), members of those groups underperform in high-pressure situations such as exams.*

There is a lot of evidence at this point that supports stereotype threat; this page gives a list of over 300 studies on stereotype threatWhistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele is a really interesting book on the subject. But, to get you started, here are a few studies that provide evidence of stereotype threat:

When Asian-American women taking a math test were given a pre-test questionnaire that reminded them of their gender, they performed significantly worse than the control group, which was not reminded of their gender. Interestingly, there was also a treatment group that was reminded of their ethnic identity, which experiences a positive stereotype associated with math performance; students in this treatment group did significantly better than the control group on the exam. Thus, reminding students of a negatively stereotyped component of their identity reduced performance, but reminding them of a positively stereotyped component improved it.

– A study by the Educational Testing Service (reported on page 188 of Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi) tested whether women’s performance on the AP calculus exam was influenced by whether they had to indicate their gender before or after the exam. It was. Based on the size of the effect they measured, asking women to indicate their gender after exam, rather than before, would lead to 16.7% more women starting college with calculus credit. (It is important to note that this is an underestimate of the effect of stereotype threat, because the women who indicated their gender after the exam still surely experienced stereotype threat, just not to as great an extent as those who indicated their gender before the exam.) It’s kind of shocking that simply filling in a bubble to identify oneself as female can significantly lower performance on an exam.

– White and black students were given the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices task. Students were given one of three instructions before the exam: that it was a measure of “observation and clear thinking” (which they refer to as the “standard threat” treatment), that it was an IQ test that measured intelligence and ability (which was the “high threat” treatment, as it would invoke stereotype threat for the black students), or that it was a set of puzzles (which was the “low threat” treatment). Black students did significantly worse than white students in the high and standard threat treatments, but did as well as white students in the low threat treatment.

– Finally, as evidence that all groups can experience stereotype threat, if white students were told that a golf task they were given was diagnostic of athletic ability, they did significantly worse on it than when they were told it was diagnostic of athletic intelligence. (pdf link)

(also see footnote below for an uncontrolled but very interesting exploration of stereotype threat)

And here’s perhaps the most disturbing aspect of stereotype threat: stereotype threat most strongly affects strong, motivated students.

No special susceptibility is required to experience this pressure. Research has found but one prerequisite: the person must care about the performance in question. That’s what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance.

Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, pages 98

What mechanism underlies stereotype threat? Constantly thinking about whether your performance on a difficult task is potentially letting down your entire group takes up mental bandwidth that then can’t be used for the task at hand. The person experiencing stereotype threat is always multitasking, and multitasking reduces performance. Stereotype threat leads to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. (There’s an interesting section in Whistling Vivaldi exploring whether this can help explain why minority groups have poorer health than would be predicted otherwise, due to a phenomenon known as John Henryism.)

Stereotype threat can mean that the person is not just taking an exam (or participating in an interview or running a race or whatever the task at hand is) – they are also trying to refute a stereotype. This leads to extra pressure not to fail – you are representing your whole stereotyped group, afterall! This is something that comes up regularly in stories about women in STEM and minorities in academia. For example, in this piece written by a woman leaving chemisty, she discusses the pressure she faced not to leave academia, as that would be taken as a failure of women in science, reducing diversity. And the picture that stood out to me the most when I looked through the I, Too, Am Harvard tumblr was this one:


Source: I, Too, Am Harvard

Clearly that woman has faced the pressure of being the only black student in her class, and being viewed as a representative of an entire race. It is easy to imagine how, in such a situation, one might feel suffocating pressure to do well.

Disproving a stereotype is a Sisyphean task; something you have to do over and over again as long as you are in the domain where the stereotype applies.

Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, page 111

Hopefully this post has convinced you that stereotype threat is real and a concern. Tomorrow’s post will cover things that can be done to try to reduce stereotype threat.

*UPDATE: See this post for a great quote from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the stereotypes he’s faced.

There is a really interesting Frontline documentary entitled “A Class Divided” that features a teacher, Jane Elliot. The day after Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, she did an experiment with her class that is a powerful demonstration of the potential impacts of stereotype threat. As she explains in the documentary, she felt that she needed to do something to make her (all-white) students realize how dehumanizing and pernicious stereotypes can be. To demonstrate that, she told her class that blue-eyed people were smarter and better than brown-eyed people, and made the brown-eyed students wear felt collars. It’s amazing to see in the video how quickly the students internalize this. Even more amazing is to see how quickly they internalize the exact opposite message when she reverses it on the second day, telling them that, actually, brown-eyed people are smarter and better and making the blue-eyed students wear the collars. In the documentary, she notes that there was a difference in the performance of students on tests between the days, with brown-eyed students doing worse the first day and better the second day (and vice-versa for the blue-eyed kids) (this segment starts a bit before 3 minutes in the second segment). The video is really remarkable and eye-opening. (Note: the film is not from the days immediately after Martin Luther King, Jr. died. She repeated the experiment in future years, and it was filmed in one of those years.)

15 thoughts on “Stereotype threat: A summary of the problem

  1. A great summary of the research and a good reminder of how much cognitive energy I waste worrying how people view me. It’s worse on the tenure track than ever before. Some days I wish I could forget the social context of everything.

  2. This reminds me of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset where people fell into two categories – those who viewed their abilities as fixed and those who thought they could do better with practice (growth mindset). The fixed mindset responded in the same way as the groups under stereotype threat in your article, basically because they saw failure as a statement of their abilities and a threat to their identity. It would be an interesting study to try and unpick the relationship between mindset and stereotype threat. Looking forward to your other articles in the series.

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