In the article “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance,” Claude Steele discusses the empirical methods used to test a psychological theory called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat offers a new method for interpreting “group differences in standardized test scores,” particularly for African-Americans taking standardized verbal tests and for women taking standardized math tests (p. 613). It states that if someone is in a situation “for which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies,” the individual may “fear being reduced to that stereotype,” which can in turn “[hamper] their achievement” (p. 614). However, in order to experience the effects of stereotype threat, one must self-identify with the situation. This has troubling implications as it implies that those who are most likely to experience stereotype threat are probably the individuals who show the most promise in their respective field, but due to repeatedly experiencing stereotype threat may end up disidentifying with that field (p. 614).
To support the theory of stereotype threat Steele and his colleagues’ research focused on “the intellectual performance in the domain in which the negative group stereotypes apply” and whether or not reducing the pressure of stereotype threat would “improve the performance of otherwise stereotype-threatened students” (p. 618). To test for stereotype threat in women’s performance in math, the researchers recruited a sample of male and female college sophomores who considered math an important part of their self-definition and gave them difficult math questions from the GRE to answer. The researchers found that the female participants underperformed as compared to their equally qualified male counterparts (p. 619).
The researchers performed a similar experiment to test for stereotype threat of African-Americans on standardized tests. In the experiment white and African-American Stanford students took a test consisting of difficult questions from the GRE verbal exam. In one study the exam was presented as a test of intellectual ability, and in the other it was presented as “a problem-solving task unrelated to ability and thus to the stereotype about ability” (p. 620). The researchers controlled for possible third-variable correlation by measuring participants verbal SAT scores.
The results showed the presence of stereotype threat as the African-American participants performed equally as well as the white participants in the first condition but worse in the second. In a second experiment participants were primed by having to record their race on a “demographic questionnaire” prior to taking the test. The study found that African-American participants performed worse when they had to record their race than in the control group, suggesting that the “Salience of the racial stereotype alone was enough to depress the performance” of the African-American students (p. 620).
These experiments have important implications as they bring an important variable into consideration when attempting to account for the the gap in standardized test scores between whites and African-Americans and between men and women. It also discounts much of the racist science and pseudoscience that has been used to attempt to explain this gap as a result of genetics, in particular Charles A. Murray’s “The Bell Curve”. The experiment also clearly exhibits the urgent need to remove demographic questionnaires from all standardized tests.
Steele, C. M. (1997, June). A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.
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