Stereotype Threat

December 04, 2012 by John Andrew Williams

There are two types of stereotyping.

  1. When others stereotype us.
  2. When we stereotype ourselves.

The deeper issue at play is how we view ourselves and our natural inclinations. In the early 1990s, Claude Steele conducted experiments on stereotypes and identity and coined the term “stereotype threat.”

Stereotype threat explains the phenomenon of how being reminded of a negative stereotype associated with your identity causes a downward dip in performance. Female students who were reminded of their gender before a tough math test did worse than girls who weren’t reminded. African American students who were reminded of their race just before a science test did worse on the tests than those who weren’t reminded.

The difference isn’t large, from five to ten percent. However, it’s measurable, and a five percent difference is often enough to bridge the gap between an A and a B.

Fortunately, the reverse of stereotype threat is also true. If someone has a positive view of their identity and what they can accomplish, it produces a small but measurable boost. Let’s call it the identity boost.

In an experiment by Joshua Aronson, two groups of girls were assigned college student mentors. The mentors in one group delivered a message that intelligence is malleable and growth-oriented. The other group of mentors delivered a standard don’t-do-drugs message. The girls met with their mentors twice for 90 minutes.

The results between the academic performance in each group was stark. Those who received the message that their intelligence was not finite and could be improved, scored ten points higher than those who received a standard anti-drug message.

Students still have to do the hard work of studying and learning. But the implications of a positive and resilient identify are clear. Students who are proactive in creating a positive identity for themselves boost their performance.

(These examples follow the argument Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, pages 95 to 97. It’s a great book, and definitely worth a read.)

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