The Situationist

Stereotype Threat and Performance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2007

Donovan McNabbDavid Dobbs of Scientific American links to a piece by S. Alexander Haslam, Jessica Salvatore, and Thomas Kessler of the University of Exeter entitled “How Stereotypes Shape Performance.” They discuss new research on stereotype threat, a topic that we have examined on multiple occasions and refers the (often self-fulfilling) fear that one’s behavior or performance will confirm an existing stereotype associated with one’s identity groups. Stereotype threat attracted attention earlier this fall, when Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb said that African-American quarterbacks face more pressure and criticism than white quarterbacks.

Below is an excerpt from Haslam, Salvatore, and Kessler’s piece.

* * *

Every sports fan has vivid memories of key occasions on which a favorite team or player has ‘choked’ under pressure. And every student who has ever taken a standardized test knows what that kind of pressure feels like. What makes for high-pressure situations, and how do they influence performance? In the last decade such issues have been explored by social psychologists researching the phenomenon of stereotype threat. Their work shows not only that pressure can compromise performance, but that this dynamic is more common among members of negatively stereotyped social groups. Why?

The classic demonstration of stereotype threat, in a 1995 paper by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, emerged from a series of studies in which high-achieving African American students at Stanford completed the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) under conditions where they thought either that the test was measuring intelligence or that it was not a test of ability at all. Intriguingly, these bright students did much worse when they considered it an intelligence test.. This, the researchers argued, was because “in situations where [a negative] stereotype is applicable, one is at risk of confirming it as aStudents Taking Test self-characterization, both to one’s self and to others who know the stereotype.” This tendency to perform worse when conscious of being in a group stereotyped as performing poorly is what is meant by stereotype threat.

This pattern of findings has been replicated with many different groups on many different dimensions of stereotype content. The work of the University of Chicago’s Sian Beilock and colleagues, reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (abstract or pdf download), follows that of many previous researchers in showing that if female students are made aware of a stereotype that men have greater mathematical ability than women, they tend to do worse on complex mathematical tasks than they do if they are not alerted to this stereotype.

* * *

An explanation of effects arising from stereotype threat also needs to explain why they are not particularly generalized. For it is certainly not the case that all members of a given group succumb to the perils of threat. On the contrary, effects are restricted to individuals who value the domain in question, and who have high levels of basic competence (i.e., those who, in the abstract, have less to worry about). A woman who loves math and is good at it, in short, is more likely than others to suffer from stereotype threat. How so?

* * *

For the rest of the piece, click here. For other discussions of stereotype threat in the sports context, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Baseketball” and “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’” For previous Situationist posts examining the causes and consequences of stereotype threat, see “The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”


3 Responses to “Stereotype Threat and Performance”

  1. Here are 5 very brief descriptions of stereotype threat research:

  2. […] review some related Situationist posts, see “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, […]

  3. rgsr said

    I borrowed the picture on intelligence test to use for my article How do Psychologists Collect Research Data?. FYI.

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