Stereotype Threat and Working Memory

Categories: MemoryStereotypesWork

In this article the researchers sought out to test if stereotype threat can have negative impact on an individual’s working memory and performance on complex cognitive tasks and broke it down into three different experiments to better test this occurrence. Comments: This study sheds light on how task performance and working memory for minorities can be affected when their classification is made a point of the test or task.

Review of Literature

Stereotype threat refers to the phenomenon whereby individuals perform more poorly on a task when a relevant stereotype or stigmatized social identity is made salient in the performance situation.

Steele and his colleagues (Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002) maintained that this reduced performance results from an added pressure or concern that a poor performance could be seen as confirming a negative social stereotype about their ingroup. Thus, in sharp contrast to socialization theories, inherent ability theories, or even educational resource theories for why men outperform women on math tests or why European Americans outperform African Americans on standardized tests, stereotype threat offers a uniquely situational explanation for these group-performance differences (see Steele, 1997, for review).

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Comments: This study is in reference to (Steele, 1997), (Steele & Aronson, 1995), (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002) and further examines how stereotype adds pressure to the minority groups and the cognitive abilities.


The researchers three experimented hypotheses were to see how and in what ways stereotype threat affects minority and marginalized groups working memory and ability to perform on standardized tests. Comments: This simply hypothesis was broken down and experimented in three different ways as to help better clarify how this problem can manifest.

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Objectives Three different hypotheses were experimented (1) how stereotype threat interferes with working memory in women vs. men (2) examine the negative effects of stereotype threat on the working memory capacity of Latinos vs. whites and (3) whether and how working memory capacity mediates the effect of stereotype threat on academic test performance in women vs. men Comments: Three different experiments were done to test their three different hypotheses each with different groups (Men/Women, Hispanics/Whites) to examine different degrees of the negative effects of stereotype threats.


These experiments were conducted with select participants based on criteria from a previous mass survey of undergraduates in which they indicated their self-identifying ethnicity, and/or if they scored 500 or higher on the quantitative section of the SAT each experiment was randomly assigned by on self-identifying criteria and studied by (1) having women and men complete a measure of working memory capacity under conditions of stereotype threat or not, (2) comparing the performance of Latino students to the performance of White students under conditions of stereotype threat, (3) having women complete both the working memory measure and a standardized math test under stereotype threat or nonthreat conditions. Comments: These three procedures give us insight to still only a few effects of stereotype threats in different groups, but each experiment is given a clear break down of their respective method, procedure, and materials used however their sample sizes were very small. Findings Hypothesis one: Framing a task in terms of a stereotyped group deficiency can lead to a measurable decrease in cognitive resources as predicted, women completing a working memory test described as a test related to mathematical ability showed reduced cognitive capacity, as measured by the number of words they were able to recall within the task.

Hypothesis two: When the working memory test was described as a measure related to intelligence, Latinos recalled fewer words compared with Whites and compared with Latinos in the non-threat control group Hypothesis three: Reveal that the reductions in working memory capacity observed under stereotype threat mediate the reductions in performance on a standardized test.

Comments: These findings are clearly stated although there are some equations that can be hard to decipher but they also included graphs to give a better idea as well as simply stated again in the discussion section of the experiment breakdowns. Summary The experiments reported here were designed to test the hypothesis that stereotype threat reduces an individual’s performance on a complex cognitive test because it reduces the individual’s working memory capacity. Results of three experiments provide support for this hypothesis…Taken together, these findings suggest that members of stigmatized groups perform poorly on cognitive tests when negative stereotypes have been primed because this added information interferes with their attention resources.

Comments: The summary is clearly stated both in their experiment findings and effects on stigmatized groups. Conclusion The primary purpose of the research reported here is to advance our knowledge of the ways in which negative stereotypes exert their influence on the individuals they target…these findings represent an important advance in understanding exactly how stereotypes work to undermine the talents and abilities of individuals who might otherwise meet their full potential in high-stakes performance situations, such as college entrance exams.

Comments: The conclusion goes well with both the findings and summary of all the ways stereotype threat can impede the success of minority groups. Recommendations ‘Beyond simply advancing our theoretical knowledge, however, we hope these findings also meet their full potential and contribute to broader efforts aimed at developing strategies to combat the deleterious effects of stereotype threat on performance’. Comments: The recommendation was simply that this study just help further research on the topic in a broader way especially since they had very limited sample sizes.

Overall Critique I thought this was a very interesting and detailed research project that showed measurable data on a topic that a lot of people might not think about or dismiss. As well as calls into question how fair standardized tests are for stigmatized groups and how debilitating stereotype threat can be on our working memory.

Cite this page

Stereotype Threat and Working Memory. (2020, May 23). Retrieved from

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