OPINION: Beware, you might be under threat from a stereotype

In a 1999 study, Jeff Stone, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, and his colleagues performed some experiments, in an attempt to explain why certain social groups doing better than others in sports lead “people to develop stereotyped beliefs about the characteristics of black, White, Hispanic, and Asian male and female athletes.” Stone and his colleagues discovered that black participants did significantly worse than the control group, in a game of golf, when it was framed as a diagnostic test of “sports intelligence.” While in experiment 2, white participants performed worse than the control group, when that same golf task was framed as a diagnostic test of their “natural athletic ability.”

To explain the ramifications of this, let’s use the  hypothetical example of Gilmore:

Professor Gilmore invited his male students to play a round of 18 holes on a beautiful summer afternoon. During the game, Gilmore discovered that some of his African-American students did better than his European-American students when he made statements like “be a man, and swing that club” and “Come on kid, what’s all that muscle for.” He discovered the reverse, with respect to their performance, was the case when he made statements like “only critical thinkers excel at this game” and “you must do a rough estimate of the ball’s trajectory in your mind before you hit it.” Gilmore went back to his office at the end of the day, wondering why using certain words made a group of students do better and another poorly during the game.

The reason for this has been called the stereotype threat. Before delving into the stereotype threat, a definition of the term stereotype should be established.

Stereotypes can be defined as a set of oversimplified and widely accepted beliefs, used in general terms, about a people who belong to a certain social group, which may be partially true or entirely false and usually not a true depiction of reality. They may be positive, but most of the time are negative.

“Stereotypes can serve at least two functions. (A) They can serve to hide or to normalize oppression by making it seem something that the oppressed person wants to do or something that comes from the oppressed person’s nature. (B) They can serve to coerce people into acting in certain ways,”said Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology at University of Maryland, College Park.

Now, what is the stereotype threat?

Claude Steele, a professor of psychology, at the University of California, Berkeley, who put forth the theory of the stereotype threat in the mid-90s, defines the stereotype threat as a situation where someone is at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.

In 1995 Steele and his colleague Joshua Aronson, published a study titled “Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans.” In this study, they discovered African-Americans performed less than their white counterparts on a difficult verbal test that when they were told the test was a diagnostic of intellectual ability; but they discovered no disparity in the performance of whites and blacks when the same test was given but no one was told it would be used as a test for intellectual ability, hence, when the instructions were neutral.

“We have found that being targeted by well-known cultural stereotypes (blacks are unintelligent, girls can’t do math, and so on) can be threatening… to … intellectual performance and academic motivation,” according to Aronson.

There have been over 300 studies affirming the existence of this threat since Claude and Aronson published their studies in 1995

Consequences of this kind of threat are severe.

Girls are less likely to be interested in science and engineering careers because of the stereotype threat. Michael Inzlicht and Talia Ben-Zeev conducted a couple of experiments, published in 2000, with males and females taking a difficult math or verbal test. They had a group of three individuals taking a test at the same time. Each group either included two people of the same sex (called the same sex condition) or of the opposite sex (called the minority conditions). They discovered that females in the minority condition performed poorly in the math test only, while the males performed equally well in both conditions. Here we see the stereotype of “girls can’t do math” at work. This also revealed that the stereotype threat can be activated also by the environment of the person in question.

Even knowing the gender of your opponent during a game of chess can put one in the position of being threatened stereotypically.

In a 2008 paper by Anne Maass, et al., they argue that the under-representation of women in the chess world, as only 5 percent of registered tournament players and 1 percent of grandmasters are women, is because of a gender stereotype.

They assembled forty-two male-female pair of the same ability to play a game of chess over the internet. When the women were unaware of the gender of their sparring partners, they performed as well as their male counterparts. When they were told that their sparring partners were male, hence, when the gender stereotype was activated, they showed a drastic drop in performance. When these women were falsely told their sparring partners were female, instead of male, they did as well as their male counterparts. We see the stereotype of “women are not good at chess” at work here.

What we notice here is that stereotypes are false and as Patricia Collins puts it, can be to used “coerce people into acting in certain ways.”

She gives an example of this:

Consider the stereotype: Men don’t cry. It’s false (since some men do). Yet perhaps it is true that less men cry than women (I don’t know whether that’s true or not either, but let’s suppose it is). If a man doesn’t cry because he doesn’t think he is supposed to and because he will not be much of a man (he won’t be a real man) if he does, then he is using the stereotype to regulate his conduct.”

White males, who were chosen for their proficiency in math, did poorly on tests when they took the tests with Asian counterparts after a stereotype threat was invoked by making a comparison between their performance and that of their Asian counterparts. A 1999 study by Aronson, et al. unveils.

The threat of the stereotype is pervasive in our daily lives.

One thing is clear; if you can be identified with a social group, be it racial or class-based, you can be a victim of the stereotype threat, because every social group has at least one negative stereotype attached to it.

So, what can we do about this threat?

As was noted in the studies mentioned above, in many cases once instructions for a test are racially or gender neutral, disparities in performance become negligible or eliminated. The need for this, especially in the professor-student relationship, is very important. In some cases, when, collecting information about a person demography is important, it may be useful to do this after the task to be done is over.

It is also important for tutors or professors to always attribute the difficulty of a task to the intrinsic nature of such a task and not to a negative stereotype, no matter how subtly, with respect to the student in question. Hence, at student finding Laplacian transform or organic chemistry hard, should be made to understand that those things are hard in themselves and not hard because such a student is a woman or Hispanic.

Tam Kemabonta can be reached kema4033@stthomas.edu.