As we learned earlier, stereotypes are generalized thoughts that influence our beliefs about others but also beliefs about ourselves and even our own performance on important tasks. In some cases, these beliefs may be positive, and have the effect of making us feel more confident and better able to perform tasks. On the other hand, sometimes these beliefs are negative, and they have the effect of making us perform more poorly just because of our knowledge about the stereotypes.
One of the long-standing puzzles in the area of academic performance concerns why African American students in the United States perform more poorly on standardized tests, receive lower grades, and are less likely to remain in school in comparison with White students, even when other factors such as family income, parents’ education, and other relevant variables are controlled. Steele and Aronson (1995) tested the hypothesis that these differences might be due to the activation of negative stereotypes. They hypothesized that African American students are aware of the inaccurate stereotype that ‘African American students are intellectually inferior to White students,’ and this stereotype creates a negative expectation. This negative expectation then interferes with students’ performance on intellectual and academic tests through fear of confirming that stereotype.
Results confirmed that African American college students performed worse, in comparison with their prior test scores, on math questions taken from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) when the test was described to them as a diagnostic measure of their mathematical abilities (and thus when the stereotype was relevant) but performance was not influenced when the same questions were framed as a problem-solving activity.
In another study, Steele and Aronson found that when African American students were asked to indicate their race before they took a math test (a way to activating the stereotype), they performed more poorly than they had on prior exams, whereas the scores of White students were not affected by first indicating their race. Steele and Aronson argued that thinking about negative stereotypes that are relevant to the task that you are performing creates stereotype threat, which leads to decreased performance. That is, the negative impact of race on standardized tests may be caused, at least in part, by the performance situation itself. When the threat was present, African American students were negatively influenced by it.
Research has found that the experience of stereotype threat can help explain a wide variety of performance declines among those who are targeted by negative stereotypes. For instance, when a math task is described as diagnostic of intelligence, Latinos and particularly Latinas perform more poorly than do Whites (Gonzales, Blanton, & Williams, 2002). Similarly, when stereotypes are activated, children with low socioeconomic status perform more poorly in math than do those with high socioeconomic status, and psychology students perform more poorly than do natural science students (Brown, Croizet, Bohner, Fournet, & Payne, 2003). Even groups who typically enjoy advantaged social status can be made to experience stereotype threat. White men performed more poorly on a math test when they were told that their performance would be compared with that of Asian men (Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, & Steele, 1999), and Whites students performed more poorly than African American students on a sport-related task when it was described to them as measuring their natural athletic ability (Stone, 2002).
Stereotype threat is created in situations that pose a significant threat to self-concern, such that our perceptions of ourselves as important, valuable, and capable individuals are threatened. In these situations, there is a discrepancy between our positive concept of our skills and abilities and the negative stereotypes suggesting poor performance. When our stereotypes lead us to be believe that we are likely to perform poorly on a task, we experience a feeling of unease and status threat. Stereotype threat is not, however, absolute and manipulations that affirm positive characteristics about oneself or one’s group are successful at reducing stereotype threat (Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, & Ruble, 2010; Greenberg et al., 2003; McIntyre, Paulson, & Lord, 2003). In fact, just knowing that stereotype threat exists may influence performance and possibly alleviate its negative impact (Johns, Schmader, & Martens, 2005).