Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap

Reminders of stereotyped inferiority hurt test scores.

What the Research Shows

A growing body of studies undercuts conventional assumptions that genetics or cultural differences lead some students - such as African Americans or girls - to do poorly on standardized academic tests and other academic performances. Instead, it's become clear that negative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties in a test-taker's mind, resulting in the phenomenon of "stereotype threat." Psychologists Claude Steele, PhD, Joshua Aronson, PhD, and Steven Spencer, PhD, have found that even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc with test performance.

Steele, Aronson and Spencer, have examined how group stereotypes can threaten how students evaluate themselves, which then alters academic identity and intellectual performance. This social-psychological predicament can, researchers believe, beset members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist.

Steele and Aronson gave Black and White college students a half-hour test using difficult items from the verbal Graduate Record Exam (GRE). In the stereotype-threat condition, they told students the test diagnosed intellectual ability, thus potentially eliciting the stereotype that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites. In the no-stereotype-threat condition, the researchers told students that the test was a problem-solving lab task that said nothing about ability, presumably rendering stereotypes irrelevant. In the stereotype threat condition, Blacks - who were matched with Whites in their group by SAT scores -- did less well than Whites. In the no stereotype- threat condition-in which the exact same test was described as a lab task that did not indicate ability-Blacks' performance rose to match that of equally skilled Whites. Additional experiments that minimized the stereotype threat endemic to standardized tests also resulted in equal performance. One study found that when students merely recorded their race (presumably making the stereotype salient), and were not told the test was diagnostic of their ability, Blacks still performed worse than Whites.

Spencer, Steele, and Diane Quinn, PhD, also found that merely telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. When test administrators told women that that tests showed no gender differences, the women performed equal to men. Those who were told the test showed gender differences did significantly worse than men, just like women who were told nothing about the test. This experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math, just as the experiments on race were conducted with strong, motivated students.

What the Research Means

Psychologist and educators are, through this innovative research, coming to understand the true nature of one of the barriers to equal educational achievement. Although psychologists such as Steele, Aronson and Spencer concede that test-score gaps probably can't be totally attributed to stereotype threat, the threat appears to be sufficiently influential to be heeded by teachers, students, researchers, policymakers and parents. At the very least, the findings undercut the tendency to lay the blame on unsupported genetic and cultural factors, such as whether African Americans "value" education or girls can't do math.

Through careful design, the studies have also shown the subtle and insidious nature of stereotype threat. For example, because stereotype threat affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences - thus still flagging the possibility - social psychologists believe that even mentioning a stereotype in a benign context can sensitize people.

How We Use the Research

Aronson believes the study of stereotype threat offers some "exciting and encouraging answers to these old questions [of achievement gaps] by looking at the psychology of stigma -- the way human beings respond to negative stereotypes about their racial or gender group." By subtly altering the test situation to remove stereotype threat, Aronson and his colleagues have demonstrated dramatic improvement in standardized test scores among members of negatively stereotyped groups.

Says Aronson, "We have found that we can do a lot to boost both achievement and the enjoyment of school by understanding and attending to these psychological processes, thereby unseating the power of stereotypes and prejudice to foil the academic aspirations of the young people who, just by virtue of being born black, brown, or female, are subjected to suspicions of inferiority."

He is now putting research to work in the schools, developing practical methods to reduce the achievement gap and writing a guidebook for educators. Ultimately, Aronson hopes to create a nationwide panel of experts to focus on reducing stereotype threat to help close the achievement gap. Research into stereotype threat has also been cited extensively in two recent Supreme Court cases, and is frequently referred to by psychologists, educators, and social scientists concerned with educational equality.

Sources & Further Reading

Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2004). The ups and downs of attributional ambiguity: Stereotype vulnerability and the academic self-knowledge of African-American students. Psychological Science, 15, 829-836.

Aronson, J. , Fried, C., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125.

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Steele, C. M. (1999, August). Thin ice: "Stereotype threat" and black college students. The Atlantic Monthly, 284(2), 44-47, 50-54.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

American Psychological Association, July 15, 2006