Stanford dean shares research on 'stereotype threat'

Fear of being judged based on negative stereotype causes low performance, research says

Why do black students, with equally good SAT scores, end up with worse college GPAs than their white counterparts?

Why do female math majors, going in with performance equal to that of male students, fall behind in advanced classes?

Social psychologist Claude Steele, the new dean of the Stanford University School of Education, shared his findings on those questions in a campus talk Monday (Oct. 31).

Steele has spent much of his career exploring performance anxiety based on perceived negative consequences of stereotypes.

His results shed light on the racial achievement gap. Data from the Palo Alto Unified School District, discussed by the Board of Education last week, showed that only 3 of the 20 African-American students who graduated in 2011 had completed the prerequisites for California's four-year state universities, compared to 80 percent of all district graduates.

When people are in situations where they feel they must refute a stereotype, they get distracted and anxious, wasting valuable cognitive resources in trying to perform, Steele said.

Thus, in one of Steele's early experiments, high-ability women performed worse than their male counterparts on a frustrating math test. But when a subsequent group of subjects was given the same difficult test -- but told in advance that men and women had always performed equally on the test in the past -- the women's performance rose to match that of the men, he said.

Steele has done similar work with what he calls "stereotype threat" as it pertains to race.

Told that a nonverbal test involving squares and designs was related to IQ, blacks performed a standard deviation worse than whites on the task.

"But if you give the exact same test and say it has nothing to do with your cognitive abilities -- 'just have fun' -- blacks score just the same as whites," he said.

"I think the best account of it is when an African-American is taking a difficult IQ test, there's that stereotype out there that's ancient about intelligence, and you allocate some of your cognitive resources to defending against that stereotype," Steele told more than 100 people attending his lunchtime talk.

In another context, engineering graduate students at Stanford underperform on a test when told that Asians generally do better than whites, he said.

Steele's talk was part of a series of brown bag seminars sponsored by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

"We need a greater appreciation for the role of context in the way we function," said Steele, noting the long-term impacts of "stereotype threat" on a woman who chooses to go into math as a long-term career.

"We tend to think of the individual in a decontextualized way. When we're thinking about level of performance on a test or level of functioning in a class, we don't tend to think of the role that context can play," he said.

Steele recalled, as a child of 7 or 8, being confused when he learned that black kids couldn't swim at the neighborhood pool except on Wednesday afternoons, and couldn't use the roller rink except on Thursday nights.

"In hindsight, I was for the first time recognizing a condition of my life tied to race," he said.

Similarly, female students in the sciences might have been discouraged to hear then-Harvard University President Larry Summers suggest there could be a biological difference between men and women regarding math ability, Steele said.

"Stereotype threat comes when a person knows at some level they could be judged or treated in terms of a negative stereotype," he said.

"If you care about what you're doing, the prospect of being reduced automatically to a negative stereotype is upsetting and distracting."

As for remedies, Steele said, "We should do as much as we can to reduce the cues and contingencies tied to important situations, like a school classroom.

"There should be a self-conscious effort to examine a classroom, a workplace, for those cues (that suggest people could be judged based on stereotypes)."

A good topic for future research would be how to help individuals develop "internal narratives" to help them withstand stereotype threats they may encounter in the future, he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

Interesting article.

I have to say that any such stereotypes motivated me to work even harder to prove those stereotypes wrong.

Unfortunately, many of the stereotypes for minority students often comes from members of our own racial or ethnic minorities.

I am thankful that I had public school teachers in Texas who didn't pay "special attention" to me because they expected me to succeed as much as any Anglo student. Those teachers challenged me and even told me that I was intelligent enough to succeed as well as any other students.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Simple solution. ELIMINATE ALL RACIAL IDENTIFICATION FROM EVERY STEP OF THE EDUCATIONAL PROCESS. Then treat every student as a unique individual. 40 years of playing the race game and no one has gained from it. Blacks with a 130 IQ are on the same level as 70s. Compare them with other 130s if you want numbers, but compare them as individuals.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2011 at 6:19 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2011 at 5:52 am

Perspective is a registered user.

Hmmm...I get anxious anxious as a woman to prove I am equal to a man, so I do worse, so somehow that is still stereotyping's fault?

Sorry, I don't buy it.

If I am anxious, I must manage my own anxiety. I own my reactions and behaviors, and blame no one else.

No, I am not saying that it is useful to have stereotypes to overcome..I have lived it myself, ..I am saying that this implies that somehow my anxiety ( which I have indeed experienced greatly) is someone else's fault and someone else's responsibility to fix.

It adds to the stereotyping, much like affirmative action adds to the stereotyping that those of us of color or female needs extra help adds to the stereotyping.

I agree with Walter. Get past it, America, judge each of us as individuals, not part of "groups".

Like this comment
Posted by soren
a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2011 at 7:36 am

The problem with the promoters of "stereotype threat" is that they're working against true stereotypes. Blacks perform a standard deviation or more below whites on (ALMOST) ALL standardized tests and Asian-Americans typically do perform better than whites.

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