Stereotype Threat: A Literature Review and Experimental Design

In 1991, Neil deGrasse Tyson received his doctoral degree to become just the seventh African-American astrophysicist in the United States out of 4000. In his address at Columbia University graduation ceremonies, he profoundly acknowledged the array of difficulties facing African-American’s in western society via the popular conception of stereotypes, by stating that (Good et al., 2003, p.646):

“In the perception of society my athletic talents are genetic; I am a likely mugger/rapist; my academic failures are expected; and my academic successes are attributed to others. To spend most of my life fighting these attitudes levies an emotional tax that is a form of intellectual emasculation” (deGrasse Tyson, 1991 in Good et al., 2003, p.646).

Stereotypes are overtly simplistic evaluations of groups that are in no way a fair or accurate representation. Some stereotypes are positive, but the vast majority are not. Negative stereotypes include ‘women are bad at maths’ and ‘African-American students do not perform as well as White students academically’ (Steele and Aronson, 1995; Dweck, 2008). The fundamental emphasis of this paper is to address the critical field of stereotype threat; which is just one of the issues associated with over-generalised observations of societal groups. Stereotype threat can be defined as being “at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (Steele and Aronson, 1995, p.797). The term ‘stereotype threat’ was coined by Steele and Aronson (1995) and according to the website reducingstereotypethreat.org, there are over 300 experiments on stereotype threat published in peer-reviewed journals (reducingstereotypethreat.org, 2016). Steele and Aronson (1995) accentuated the importance of academic analysis on stereotype threat and its wider implications by stating that “when the stereotype involved demeans something as important as intellectual ability, this threat can be disruptive enough […] to impair intellectual performance” (Steele and Aronson, 1995, p.808). In this paper, I will present a literature review of stereotype threat, before presenting the plan for my own academic study on stereotype threat, present with hypotheses and a justified experimental design.

Originally, stereotype threat research can be traced back to the work of Katz, Roberts and Robinson (1965). However, the current significance of the field can be attributed to a renewed interest in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, for which the seminal work of Steele and Aronson (1995) can be apportioned credit for. Firstly, Katz, Roberts and Robinson (1965) concluded that the reason that Black participants in their experiment performed worse in an intellectual test, when observed by a White tester as opposed to a Black tester, could be the result of the Black subject “postulating a marked reduction in the perceived probability of success” (Katz, Roberts and Robinson, 1965, p.59) of meeting the White testers expectations. Secondly, and as an introduction to the contemporary literature, in their aforementioned paper, Steele and Aronson (1995) investigated whether or not stereotype threat could explain the gap in school achievement between African-American and White students. They found that making African-American students aware of negative stereotypes about their group’s intellectual ability depressed their standardised test scores relative to White students. They also established that in conditions where awareness of the stereotype was reduced or where the stereotype was not seen as applicable, the performance of African-American students improved to equal with White students. Furthermore, Steele and Aronson (1995) highlighted potential mechanisms by which stereotype threat could manifest. They suggested that there could be a range of possibilities, such as: “distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, over-effort, and so on” (Steele and Aronson, 1995, p.809). Moreover, different mechanisms could be triggered by different conditions or the mechanisms could work simultaneously (Steele and Aronson, 1995). In addition to this, they argue that a subject does not have to believe the stereotype, but merely be aware of it for the threat to be salient.

Since its revival, the critical field on stereotype threat has broadened to encompass a range of different groups and domains in which stereotype threat is pertinent. It has also deepened to incorporate explanations for how stereotype threat might manifest and how best to counteract the negative effects on threatened groups. The most scrutinised domains in the stereotype threat literature are the academic performances of ethnic minorities, most notably African-Americans, who are the target of intellectual inferiority in almost all academic domains (Wasserberg, 2008; Steele and Aronson, 1995; Steele, 1997; Steele et al., 2002), and the performance of women in maths (Spencer, Steele and Quinn, 1999; Schmader, Johns and Barquissau, 2004; Dweck 2008). Although the classroom might appear identical between stereotyped and non-stereotyped people, the way in which individuals experience the environmental could be fundamentally different (Cohen and Garcia, 2008). There are various components of stereotype threat that even when subtly altered, can hugely consequential to its manifestation (Osborne, 2006). Also, negative effects have been shown to reduce when tasks are framed as non-diagnostic of intellectual or athletic ability (Croizet and Claire, 1998; Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling and Darley, 1999). In extension of the research of Katz, Roberts and Robinson (1965), Osborne (2007) suggested that the gender or race of the experimenter in stereotype threat studies could be pertinent to the outcome. Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling and Darley (1999) found that intellectual stereotypes can cross over into other domains and have adverse effects on threatened individuals, although this is debated, as some advocate that relevance is important. Meaning that if a person is primed on a stereotype outside of its domain, its effects would be muted (Nguyen and Ryan, 2008). Stereotype threat has been closely linked with causing higher levels of anxiety, lowering self-esteem and causing dis-identification with the relevant domain (Wasserberg, 2007; Crocker, 1999 and Stone, 2002). The end result of this can often be a withdrawal in participation in the domain, which in part explains the under-representation of females in maths fields (Good et al., 2008; Good, Rattan and Dweck, 2012). Good et al. (2008) have also contended that a consequence of high attrition rates for females is that females in professional and higher education maths domains tend to be more gifted and prepared than their male counterparts (p.25).

Stereotype threat is part of a wider field that includes areas like tokenism and distinctiveness theory. The work of Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev (2000) refers to both in their paper that investigates the effects that working in an environment with male contact has on women’s problem-solving performance. Principally, would working with males produce problem-solving deficits? These problem-solving tasks involved maths tasks and verbal tests. When female participants were outnumbered by males in the experimental condition, distinctiveness theory “suggests that a minority status can evoke a sense of group identity, which is then incorporated into the working self-concept” (Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev, 2000, p.365). In turn this will lead to a heightened awareness of one’s group, and in the case of females, the negative stereotypes that associated with women. This would result in poorer performance in the maths condition. Tokenism, on the other hand, maintains that “a minority or token status […] should elicit cognitive deficits in all domains” (Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev, 2000, p.366). Tokenism would therefore hypothesise deficits amongst female participants in both maths and verbal tests. The findings of the study by Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev (2000) were consistent with both distinctiveness theory and stereotype threat by contrary to tokenism (p.368-369). Moreover, although interesting subsets and important to acknowledge to gain a deeper understanding of the wider critical field, both distinctiveness theory and tokenism are past the immediate remit of this paper.

Whilst research has been predominantly focused on the effects on women in maths domains and African-American’s in academic domains, the literature has extended to a number of stereotypes and stigmatised groups, in a variety of areas.  This growth includes research on topics such as students of low socioeconomic status (Croizet and Claire, 1998); white men in sports performance (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling and Darley, 1999); women in negotiations (Kray, Thompson and Galinsky, 2001; Kray, Galinsky and Thompson, 2002); homosexuals in providing childcare (Bosson, Haymovitz and Pinel, 2004); Whites in regard to appearing racist (Frantz et al., 2004) and women in driving domains (Yeung and von Hippel, 2008).

The literature has also established that stereotype threat is not solely limited to stigmatised individuals. Moreover, stereotype threat can effect anyone in the correct circumstances. Aronson et al. (1999) sought to investigate whether stereotype threat could situationally affect a group of non-stereotypes individuals (maths-proficient white males) when compared to a group that excel in the tested domain (Asians at maths). They found that no prior history of stigmatisation or internalised feelings of intellectual inferiority are needed in the right environment for a non-stereotyped group to underperform. Their results confirm their hypothesis. “As predicted, these stereotype-threatened white males performed worse on a difficult math test than a nonstereotype-threatened control group” (Aronson et al., 1999, p.29).

Moving onwards, the priming of participants and the framing of a stereotype can be activated either implicitly (subtly) or explicitly (obviously). “Stereotype theories in general predict that more implicit threat cues would have a stronger negative effect on task performance than explicit ones” (Nguyen and Ryan, 2008, p.1315). This is partly due to the likelihood of explicit cues activating stereotype reactance, which I will discuss briefly within this literature review. On the other hand, when it comes to stereotype threat-removal strategies, Nguyen and Ryan (2008) found explicit threat alleviation to be preferable over implicit techniques for women, but the opposite for ethnic minorities (p.1315; p.1328-1330). Additionally, Nguyen and Ryan (2008) concluded that effects could be contingent upon the type of stereotype. The theory suggests that the effects are generalisable and consistent across all stigmatised groups (Steele et al., 2002; Nguyen and Ryan, 2008). However, in their meta-analysis, Nguyen and Ryan (2008) contended that stereotype threat might be more detrimental to ethnic minorities than women. This point is concurrent with their assertion that differing removal strategies are preferable for different stereotyped groups, further highlighting that dissimilar stereotypes might interact with threat uniquely. Additionally, domain identification is another salient area of the literature, as the more a domain resonates with an individual, the more susceptible to stereotype threat they are (Nguyen and Ryan, 2008). For example, “stereotype-threat processes are most likely to have a detrimental impact on targets for whom performance in a domain holds significance for their self-worth” (Stone, 2002, p.1676). Ultimately, the pertinence of stereotype threat is dependant upon the value an individual places on the domain in which they are required to perform. Furthermore, the difficultly of the task has also been found to be of influence in the manifestation of stereotype threat, with more challenging tests increasing the likelihood of the negative effects appearing (Nguyen and Ryan, 2008). Moreover, Stone (2002) found that the process of stereotype threat on the subject begins before the relevant task is performed, during which “targets anticipate and begin to defend themselves against the possibility of confirming the stereotype through a poor performance” (Stone, 2002, p.1676). This self-handicapping behaviour sees subjects minimise practice or revision time in order to create ambiguity over potential test underperformance.

The critical field of stereotype threat has also established complementary subsidiaries, that either work in conjunction or directly against the effects of stereotype threat, such as stereotype susceptibility (Shih, Pittinsky and Ambady, 1999), stereotype lift (Walton and Cohen, 2003) and stereotype reactance (Kray, Thompson and Galinsky, 2001; Curhan and Overbeck, 2008; von Hippel et al., 2011). Shih, Pittinsky and Ambady (1999) show that people are susceptible to the activation of different identities which could be consequential in academic domains. In their study on American-Asian women, they implicitly activated either their Asian identity (the stereotype associated is that Asians have better quantitative abilities than other ethnic groups) or the female identity (the stereotype is that women have worse quantitative abilities than men). They found that when the Asian identity was salient, participants performed better than both the control group (which had no identity activation at all) and the female identity group). What their research shows is that academic performance can be helped as well as hindered through subtle activation of different identities that a person might hold.

Stereotype lift, on the other hand, proposes that “people may benefit […] when the ability or worth of an outgroup is explicitly called into question” (Walton and Cohen, 2003, p.456). Through making downwards comparisons with an outgroup that is stereotyped in the relevant domain, members of the in-group, which is usually a non-stereotyped group, such as white males, “may experience an elevation in their self-efficacy or sense of personal worth” (Walton and Cohen, 2003, p.456). This drove up test scores in the study of Walton and Cohen (2003), who also noted that “people who are prejudiced may also be particularly likely to experience stereotype lift, because they view the outgroup more negatively than do people low in prejudice” (p.456). It is important to acknowledge that “in contrast to stereotype susceptibility […], stereotype lift is triggered not by a positive stereotype about one’s own group but by a negative stereotype about another group” (Walton and Cohen, 2003, p.464). Additionally, stereotype lift works in concurrence with stereotype threat to help explain possible reasons for the gaps in performance between groups in a number of domains, not restricted to solely academic situations (Walton and Cohen, 2003). In indirect extension of the acknowledgement that people who are prejudiced are more likely to experience stereotype lift, Schmader, Johns and Barquissau (2004) stated that women in maths domains who advocated “gender stereotypes were found to be more susceptible to the negative effects of stereotype threat on their math test performance” (p.835).

Lastly, stereotype reactance posits that “men and women behave in contrast to gender stereotypes, when those stereotypes are activated explicitly” (Curhan and Overbeck, 2008, p.179). In studies that investigated the stereotype that women are weaker in negotiations than their male counterparts (Kray Thompson and Galinsky, 2001; Kray, Galinsky and Thompson, 2002), women were found to outperform males “in mixed-gender negotiations when stereotypically feminine traits were linked to successful negotiating, but not when gender-neutral traits were linked to negotiation success” (Kray, Galinsky and Thompson, 2002, p.386). The latter was to be expected, but the mechanisms by which females obtained better performance is consequential to the literature and of interest:

“When women were explicitly told that a social category to which they belong would hinder their ability to succeed, they dissociated from the traditional female stereotype and engaged in counterstereotypic behaviors that defied the stereotype” (Kray, Galinsky and Thompson, 2002, p.406).     It has been found that in the domains of negotiations and work-place leadership, implicit activation leads to confirmation of the stereotype, unlike explicit activation that triggers stereotype reactance (Kray, Thompson and Galinsky, 2001). This however, can be problematic for women in professional and personal domains. von Hippel et al. (2011) found that in a leadership setting “women who react against the stereotype by adopting a more masculine communication style are evaluated as less warm, and people are less willing to comply with their requests” (p.1321). To juxtapose these results, von Hippel et al. (2011) noted that “women who experienced stereotype threat but self-affirmed maintained a more feminine style of communication compared to women who did not self-affirm” (p.1320). The take home point of this, is that whilst adopting masculine traits in certain professional settings (e.g. negotiations) is effective at alleviating stereotype threat and improving performance, in other professional settings (e.g. communication and leadership), self-affirmation to maintain feminine traits can aid workplace relationships and efficiency.

Schmader and Johns (2003) provide research into the potential mechanisms behind the actualisation of stereotype threat. They argue that negative stereotypes might consume valuable critical cognitive resources, through working memory capacity, which results in poor test performance (p.441; p.450; Yeung and von Hippel, 2008). This view is contrasted by Beilock et al., (2006). This was displayed by the introduction of a secondary task to distract attention away from the stereotyped domain. Their premise for this was that “performance degradation can occur when too much attention is allocated to processes that usually run more automatically” (Beilock et al., 2006, p.1059). Whilst their results indicate that this is an effective way of alleviating the effects of stereotype threat, their experiment relied upon a proceduralised process, via a golf task, which does not rely upon working memory capabilities. Therefore, whilst a departure from Schmader and Johns (2003), the two studies are concerned with different domains that are realised through differing mechanisms, this allows them to work in concordance with one another. Ultimately, Beilock et al. concluded that “tasks that concurrently load on working memory and rely on proceduralized skills might be susceptible to both effects at once” (Beilock et al., 2006, p.1069).

Furthermore, other strategies adopted in attempting to alleviate the negative effects of stereotypes and attenuate performance gaps between groups include framing intelligence as malleable in academic domains (Aronson, Fried and Good, 2001; Good et al., 2003; Dweck, 2008), educating at risk groups on the effects of stereotype threat (Johns, Schmader and Martens, 2005; Jordan and Lovett, 2007) and subtly framing the threatening task as a challenge (Alter et al., 2010). The framing of intelligence as a malleable and acquirable trait has proved effective in multiple domains and has also been shown to work outside of a laboratory setting, evidencing potentially beneficial real world implications (Good, Rattan and Dweck, 2012). In their longitudinal study, Good, Rattan and Dweck also found that framing maths ability as acquirable neutralised long-term effects of stereotype. This had not been previously been done.

It has long been established that stereotype threat can lead to self-handicapping prior to performing the task at hand (Stone, 2002), but another recent development within the literature is that the effects of stereotype threat can subconsciously impede the learning process. This barrier for developing vital domain relevant skills in turn could have detrimental consequences for test performance amongst threatened groups (Rydell, Rydell and Boucher, 2010; Appel, Kronberger and Aronson, 2011).

There are however, some disagreements and paucities within the literature. For example, Jamieson and Harkins (2007) endorse the mere effort theory which suggests that stereotype threat motivates participants to strive to do well, increasing performance. In their meta-analysis of stereotype threat against women in maths domains, Stoet and Geary (2012) question the weight placed on the domain, stating that evidence is “weak at best” (p.99). Furthermore, they argue that the emphasis on stereotype threat might “hamper research and implementation of effective interventions” (Stoet and Geary, 2012, p.93). Finally, Jordan and Lovett (2007) highlight a number of deficiencies in the research on stereotype threat. Firstly, it is unknown at what age children become susceptible to stereotype threat (Jordan and Lovett, 2007, p.51). Second, research on the effects on high school-aged student is inadequate. It is not known whether they are as prone to stereotype threat as children or university students (Jordan and Lovett, 2007, p.50-51). Would children who were subjected to stereotype threat have disengaged with the domain by high school, thus lowering its prevalence? Lastly, Jordan and Lovett (2007) argue that there is a fundamental lack of research into effects in real, high-stake situations (p.52). Outside of a laboratory setting “students may be much more motivated to succeed” (Jordan and Lovett, 2007, p.52) and in high stakes situations, labelling a test as non-diagnostic is unlikely to change their perception of the test (p.52). Ultimately, however, “introducing major stereotype threat manipulations into a high-stakes real-world test would mean potentially jeopardizing the academic futures of those vulnerable students who were randomly assigned to the stereotype threat condition” (Jordan and Lovett, 2007, p.52). Although more real-world validity is needed, this highlights the potential costs of such research. This concludes the literature review section of this paper. Based on what the field has already established, I will now address what I would expect to find in my own academic research. I will briefly explain my experiment, prior to outlining my four hypotheses and explaining my experiment in greater detail, presenting a justification and rationale for its design.

The aim of my investigation is to establish if there are subtle effects to having teachers (experimenters in the research environment) with intersecting identities on students also with intersecting identities. By this I mean, does the gender and/or race of a teacher affect the performance of different groups of students? The experimental method would be a 2×2 study that would include 600 high school freshmen (150 White males, 150 White females, 150 Black males and 150 Black females) from across an inner-city educational district. Participants would take a timed English exam and a timed maths exam within a classroom setting. They would be informed that the test is being marked by the experimenter. The test would count towards their end of year mark, which they would also be told. My hypotheses based on past research and are as follows:

H1: When the experimenter is a White female, White students will outperform Black students in both tests.

Black students are susceptible to stereotype threat across all academic domains. I expect that a White experimenter will implicitly trigger stereotype threat. The use of a female experimenter will mitigate the effects of the ‘females in maths’ stereotype. This should result intra-race performance remaining consistent across both exams. White students should outperform Black students in both tests, who should also display intra-race uniformity.

H2: White males will perform consistently across all experimental settings in both tests.

Unsurprisingly, I do not expect the race or gender of the experimenter to play a significant role in the outcomes of the exams for White male students. They should be consistent with White males in the control setting.

H3: When the experimenter is a Black female, Black students will perform equally to White Students in both tests.

The use of a Black male experimenter should alleviate the negative effects of stereotype threat on Black male students in both tests, but only on Black female students in the English test. Further, when the experimenter is a Black female, effects of stereotype threat on Black female students should be mediated in the maths test as well as the English test.

H4: Black female students will suffer a ‘double effect’ in the maths test when the experimenter is a White male.

Lastly, I predict that the maths performance of Black female students when the experimenter is a White male will be the worst performance of any demographic across the experiment. In this condition, Black female students should suffer the intersectional effect of the ‘Blacks in academics’ and ‘women in maths’ stereotypes.

I will now address how best to implement my experimental design. there would be five experimenter settings: A White male, a White female, a Black male, a Black female and a control setting in which students would enter the classroom with their exams on their tables and instructions on the board, to provide a baseline. The experimenter will be given a gender and race neutral name (e.g. Dr Alex Smith). Of the five settings, each will include 120 students (30 students from each demographic). These 120 students would be randomly assigned to four classrooms of 30 students. The ideal composition of each class would be 7/8 students from each demographic. To mitigate for cheating in the control setting, participants will be informed that there are cameras in the room and anyone caught cheating would be disqualified from the exams. As it would have serious consequences for the participants, I would expect there to not be an issue with cheating.

This experimental design would allow for the testing of multiple conditions and their effects on a mix of different students in an under-appreciated area of the stereotype threat field. This research is predicated on the assertion of Cohen and Garcia (2008) that different races and genders experience the classroom differently and aims to address a shortage of research on high school-aged students within the literature (Jordan and Lovett (2007). Additionally, by using high school freshmen, it allows for testing subtle differences in a real-world exam condition, but also mediates any long-term negative consequences that triggering the adverse effects of stereotype threat might have for college students or professionals (Jordan and Lovett, 2007). Furthermore, it aims to answer the question posited by Osborne (2007). “Is it the case, for example, that a female maths teacher can reduce stereotype threat, or perhaps that a teacher of colour can reduce the threat felt by students of colour?” (Osborne, 2007, p.150). This highlights positive real-world implications for research on stereotype threat that could potentially help to alleviate its effects outside of an experimental setting.

It is also important to acknowledge potential limitations of my approach. The experiment may be attempting to test too many variables at once and might be better served as part of a series of experiments. Although I have presented only four hypotheses, I could have presented more. It is highly likely that this experiment would provide evidence on areas in which I have not hypothesised. One such area would be forwarding the claim of Nguyen and Ryan (2008) that the type of stereotype might be consequential to the nature or prominence of the effects on threatened groups. For example, this experiment could show that Black male students suffered more significant effects than White female students on the maths test. Subsequent studies would almost certainly investigate this.

As it has been established, stereotype threat can lead to deficiencies in learning ability and preparation for exams (Rydell, Rydell and Boucher, 2010; Appel, Kronberger and Aronson, 2011). Future research could investigate the potentially beneficial long-term effects of minority and female teachers on stereotype threatened groups. For example, could female students learn better in maths domains if their teacher was a female? Lastly, the experiment presented would provide a pathway for future research on the benefits of promoting the use of ethnic minority teachers and female maths teachers for the performance of students operating in stereotype threatened domains. If research in this area were to provide evidence that minority and female teachers do make a difference, then it could allow for positive, real-world implications that would endeavour to alleviate the negative effects of stereotype threat. Doing so could lead to progressive changes, such as initiatives to help increase the amounts of minority and female teachers in schools. Ultimately, this research highlights the need for studies on stereotype threat to move away laboratory settings to real-world scenarios in order to complete the next stage in the critical fields development.

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