How a Self-Fulfilling Stereotype Can Drag Down Performance

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, February 2, 2009

Here's a trick question, so think carefully before you answer: If someone mentions the word "beast" to you, which word would you match it with?

1. Afraid. 2. Words. 3. Large. 4. Animal. 5. Separate.

A beast is an animal, of course, so what's the trick? It's that getting the right answer may depend on who asks you the question.

Vocabulary questions like this have been routinely posed to thousands of Americans as part of the General Social Survey, a national survey that tracks societal trends. And for years, blacks have scored lower on the vocabulary test than whites.

Sociologist Min-Hsuing Huang recently decided to ask whether the race of the person administering the survey mattered: He found that when black people and white people answered 10 vocabulary questions posed by a white interviewer, blacks on average answered 5.49 questions correctly and whites answered 6.33 correctly -- a gap typical of the ones found on many standardized tests.

Huang then examined the performance of African Americans who interacted with black interviewers: He found that black respondents then answered 6.33 questions correctly -- the same as white ones. The reason African Americans scored more poorly on tests administered by white interviewers, Huang theorized, is that these situations can make the issue of race salient and subtly remind the test-takers of the societal stereotype that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.

Huang's findings, recently published in the journal Social Science Research, are only the latest in a body of research that has gone largely unnoticed by policymakers, parents and managers: Dozens of field experiments have found that reminding African Americans and Latinos about their race before administering academic tests, or telling them that the tests are measures of innate intelligence, can hurt their performance compared with minorities who were not reminded about race and not told that the results reflect inherent ability.

Psychologists such as Claude Steele at Stanford University came up with the term "stereotype threat" for the phenomenon: When people are threatened by a negative stereotype they think applies to them, they can be subtly biased to live out that stereotype.

The threats do not have to take place at a conscious level: When volunteers in experimental studies that have found huge stereotype-threat differences in performance are told about the phenomenon afterward, they invariably tell researchers that the theory is interesting but does not apply to them.

Nor are the findings limited to blacks and Latinos. The same phenomenon applies to women's performance in mathematics. Reminding women about their gender or telling them that men generally outperform women on math tests invariably depresses the women's scores. Similarly, telling test-takers that people of Asian descent score better than other students depresses the performance of white men. The impact of stereotype threats has been demonstrated in several foreign countries, in educational settings ranging from kindergarten to college, and a variety of settings where adults work and play.

In a soon-to-be-published study, researchers Gregory M. Walton at Stanford and Steven J. Spencer at Waterloo University in Ontario explored a question with even thornier implications. What does stereotype threat tell you if you are a college admissions officer debating between a man and a woman who both have an SAT score of 1200?

SAT scores are typically seen as measures of aptitude and predictors of a student's performance. Colleges have long known, however, that women and minorities typically underperform relative to their SAT scores.

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