Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.
What Is Stereotype Threat?
Imagine this scenario. You are sitting down to take an important exam, perhaps a college entrance exam. You have spent years preparing for this moment and you hope all your studying will pay off over these next few hours of testing. With sharpened pencils ready, you are first asked to fill in the appropriate bubble on the test form that corresponds to your race and gender. It seems like no big deal, but could filling in information about your race and gender affect your performance on the test? Researchers have discovered that it might.
Stereotype threat is a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype. Because of stereotype threat, students who are reminded of negative stereotypes about their race or gender before taking a test perform worse on those tests, especially if the negative stereotype is one that makes them feel academically inferior. The anxiety of confirming a negative stereotype seems to be the driving force behind stereotype threat. That anxiety causes testers to perform worse than they would have otherwise. Stereotype threat is a reminder of how social forces can influence test scores, including intelligence scores.
Research Behind Stereotype Threat
In 1997, researcher Steven Spencer discovered that equally intelligent women performed worse on a challenging math test than did men. However, if before the test, women were first led to believe that women typically perform as well as men on the test, women's scores were similar to the scores of the men. It seems that the negative stereotype of women's abilities in math causes women to under-perform on tests. Further research shows that women score higher on math-based tests when testing with a group of all women than when testing in a mixed-gender group.
In 2002, Steven Spencer, along with Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, discovered similar results when testing black students. Black students performed lower on tests when they were made to feel inferior before the tests. These research results are not limited to black students and women, however. White male students who scored high in math on the SAT performed worse when they were told they were taking a test to determine why Asian students typically outperform other students in math. It turns out that stereotype threat can cause all kinds of students to perform worse on tests when they believe the negative stereotype could be true or worry about confirming a stereotype.
How to Avoid Stereotype Threat
It seems that becoming aware of stereotype threat can help reduce some of the effects. When going into a testing situation, students who feel anxiety about confirming a negative stereotype may perform better if they first consider a positive role model of their race, gender, or age. In schools, teachers can also help prevent stereotype threat by encouraging diverse students that they can excel at difficult tasks and achieve high standards.
Students who understand that intelligence can be elastic instead of fixed also tend to score higher on various performance tasks. A school climate in which students feel valued and represented by many positive characteristics can go a long way in reducing the negativity of stereotype threat. Collaboration, instead of competition, can also be beneficial for all students in a diverse student body.
Criticisms of Stereotype Threat
With so much attention on stereotype threat and test scores, critics also offer some research. Research conducted by Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J. Cullen in 2004 concludes that popular media, many introductory psychology textbooks, and scientific journals often indicate incorrectly that eliminating stereotype threat will eliminate differences among sub-groups in testing conditions. Though Sacket et al. do not criticize Aronson and Steele's original research, they hope to encourage more research on a topic of such importance as the achievement gaps between racial sub-groups.
Other criticisms indicate that Aronson and Steele's research was primarily conducted on a relatively small sample of college students. Their results cannot be generalized to the public if this is the case. Further studies conducted by Fryer, Levitt, and List in 2008 were not able to replicate the stereotype threat results in gender differences on math tests.
However, when taking current research and criticisms on stereotype threat into consideration, it may be best to play it safe. The next time you sit down before an important exam, it may help if you first think of someone who inspires you, someone who encourages you, or someone you feel is a positive role model for you. Use that positive image to remind yourself of how hard you have worked in preparation for the test. Remind yourself of how much you have learned and that you are a unique individual. Then go ahead and score your highest.
Stereotype threat is a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype. Because of stereotype threat, students who are reminded of negative stereotypes about their race or gender before taking a test perform worse on those tests.
Stereotype threat was discovered in research by Steven Spencer in the late 1990s, and further supported by Spencer along with Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in the early 2000s. Subsequent criticisms of their experiments and the ways in which their results are portrayed by the media suggest that there's still more we need to learn about this phenomenon.
When you are finished, you should be able to:
- Describe stereotype threat and explain how it affects a person
- Summarize some research supporting and contradicting the existence of stereotype threat
- State how to prevent the threat of a stereotype before a testing situation
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