Imagine: you are a highly motivated student and you are about to take an important test that measures your math ability. On the test form you have to indicate your gender. You fill out: female. Now, there happens to be a widespread negative stereotype about women and math… As a consequence of having to indicate your gender your performance will probably be worse than expected. Why and how does this happen?
Activation of stereotypes
Activation of stereotypes, negative as well as positive, can influence people’s thoughts, emotions, behavior (e.g. Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Steele & Aronson, 1995) and even perceptions of the self (e.g. Levy, 1996; Pittinsky, Shih, & Ambady, 1999). The activation results in an increased cognitive accessibility of the characteristics that are ascribed to the stereotyped group (Wheeler & Petty, 2001). In the aforementioned case it would be the activation of the gender stereotype ‘woman are not good at math’.
Research across a variety of domains has demonstrated that non-consciously priming of positive or negative stereotypes causes individuals to behave and think in stereotype-consistent ways. Particularly, negative stereotypes can have a detrimental effect on the performance of members of stigmatized groups in stereotype-relevant situations, for instance when the negative stereotypes suggest that their group’s performance capacity is limited (e.g., intellectual capacity for Afro-Americans or math ability for women).
This effect is known as stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) and it can occur in all kinds of situations in which members of stigmatized groups feel that their performance on cognitively demanding tasks might confirm the negative group stereotypes. For example, stereotype threat has been shown to harm the academic performance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Croizet & Claire, 1998), Hispanics (Schmader & Johns, 2003), females in math (Good, Aronson, & Harder, 2008), and even white males when compared to Asians regarding superiority in math (Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keogh, Steele, & Brown, 1999).
Stereotype threat theory (Steele and Aronson, 1995) holds that individuals perform more poorly on a cognitively demanding task when a relevant negative stereotype or stigmatized social identity is made salient in the performance situation. This self-evaluative threat can beset the members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist. According to stereotype threat theory, especially highly domain-identified targets may fear that they will confirm the stereotype or that they will be treated and judged in terms of it. This evaluative threat creates extra pressure that impedes their performance. Framing a test as diagnostic of one’s ability is sufficient to lower the performance of group members for whom a stereotype of low ability is applicable (e.g. women’s math performance or African Americans’ cognitive abilities). Steele and Aronson, for example, showed in one of their experiments that merely indicating their race before taking a standardized test was enough to decrease African-Americans’ scores by nearly fifty percent (1995, Experiment 4).
Most of the research on the underpinnings of stereotype effects has focused mainly on the affective processes that account for the impact of negative stereotypes on performance (stereotype threat). According to the anxiety-mediator hypothesis, concerns about the possibility of confirming the negative in-group stereotypes lead to increased apprehension and anxiety. This additional threat is theorized to impair performance in a variety of ways, such as through general arousal (O’Brien & Crandall, 2003), stress and anxiety (e.g. increased blood pressure; Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001) and threat appraisals (Vick, Seery, Blascovich, & Weisbruch, 2008). Although some studies have linked these affective states to impaired performance (e.g. Bosson, Haymovitz & Pinel, 2004), other studies have failed to do so (e.g. Steele & Aronson, 1995).
Working Memory capacity
Recently, more cognitive explanations were put forward to account for the stereotype threat phenomenon. Several researchers have proposed that stereotype threat taxes working memory capacity and impairs the ability to regulate thoughts, emotions and behavior in general (Carr & Steele, 2009; Inzlicht, McKay & Aronson, 2006; Schmader & Johns, 2003; Johns, Schmader, & Inzlicht, 2008). Schmader and Johns (2003), for instance, conceptualized stereotype threat as a stressor that poses a threat to one’s social identity (Schmader, 2002). Given the evidence that stereotype threat involves increased levels of stereotype activation (Davies, Spencer, Quinn, & Gerhardstein, 2002; Steele & Aronson, 1995), processing this additional information should lead to the depletion of cognitive resources (Spencer, 2003). Stereotype threat, thus, interferes with performance on complex cognitive tasks because it reduces one’s ability to focus attention on a given task without getting distracted by irrelevant thoughts (Schmader & Johns, 2003; Inzlicht et al., 2006).
Seibt and Förster (2004) proposed an alternative cognitive model based on Higgins’ Regulatory focus theory (1997). They argued that the activation of both negative as well as positive self-relevant stereotypes affects performance strategies by inducing regulatory foci. There are two distinct, independent motivational mechanisms that influence people’s sensitivity to potential gains and losses: a focus on the presence or absence of gains, the so-called promotion focus, and a focus on the presence or absence of losses, the so-called prevention focus. A promotion focus leads to a more explorative and creative processing style, whereas a prevention focus leads to a risk aversive analytical processing style. These regulatory foci are therefore suitable for different types of tasks: a promotion focus (positive stereotype) is beneficial for tasks that need creative thinking, and a prevention focus (negative stereotype) is beneficial for analytical tasks. According to the Regulatory focus theory, individuals’ specific focus can vary both chronically and situationally. Seibt and Förster (2004) demonstrated that priming individuals with positive self-relevant stereotypes induces a promotion focus, and priming individuals with negative self-stereotypes induces a prevention focus.
According to Seibt and Förster (2004) stereotype threat may impair cognitive test performance because it induces a prevention focus. They argued that, since stereotype threat effects have been found on complex cognitive tasks that rely on creative thought, a prevention focus would not be suitable.
Ståhl and colleagues (Ståhl, Van Laar, & Ellemers, 2010) went a step further by linking regulatory foci to working memory capacity, the so called Resource Recruitment Account. In contrast to Seibt and Förster, they argued that it is not about task characteristics (e.g., ‘creative’ versus ‘analytical’) but about how people with a prevention focus respond to a threat of failure. They argued that individuals who adopt a strong prevention focus respond to stereotype threat by immediately mobilizing their regulatory resources in order to avoid negative outcomes. This response should facilitate cognitive control and enhance task performance in the short run. Over time, however, it should result in ego-depletion, a deteriorated task performance because one’s regulatory resources are limited (e.g., Baumeister, Bratlavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).
Consistent with this line of reasoning they found that individuals who adopt a prevention focus improved their regulatory capacity, and their math performance immediately after the threat manipulation (versus control). This benefit, however, turned out to be limited in terms of time, because when exposed to stereotype threat for a longer period of time prior to the math task (e.g., after a stereotype-relevant filler task), individuals under prevention focus performed significantly worse in the stereotype threat condition than in the control condition.
On the other hand, people who did not adopt a strong prevention focus were found to have an impaired regulatory capacity from the start when under stereotype threat, which was assumed to be due to stereotype-relevant thoughts taxing their working memory (Schmader & Johns, 2003). However, this group was also found to be less susceptible to cognitive depletion over time, because they invested less regulatory resources on the task. The strength of the individual’s promotion focus was found to be unrelated to cognitive recruitment and task performance under threat, supposedly because the promotion focus is oriented towards opportunities for gains rather than risks of failure (threat).
What can be done?
These recent findings are very important, because they help provide a more complete picture of the consequences of negative stereotypes. Taken together, it is not all bad news – provided that one is in the right motivational state. This implies that the negative stereotypes can be less harmful when - for instance, tests are administered in a way that a promotion focus is invoked (e.g., by framing). Another way to ensure a better result might be to administer shorter tests, so that even when students at risk for Stereotype Threat are under a prevention focus, they can mobilize all their cognitive resources without getting depleted.
- Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29–46.
- Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230–244.
- Baumeister, R.F., Bratlavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
- Blascovich, J., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D., & Steele, C. M. (2001). African Americans and high blood pressure: The role of stereotype threat. Psychological Science, 12, 225–229.
- Bosson, J. K., Haymovitz, E. L., & Pinel, E. C. (2004). When saying and doing diverge: The effects of stereotype threat on self-reported versus non-verbal anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 247-255.
- Carr, P. B., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Stereotype threat and inflexible perseverance in problem solving. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 853-859.
- Croizet, J.C., & Claire, T.(1998). Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class: The intellectual performance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 588-594.
- Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D. M., & Gerhardstein, R. (2002). Consuming images: How television commercials that elicit stereotype threat can restrain women academically and professionally. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1615–1628.
- Good, C., Aronson, J., & Harder, J. A. (2008). Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women’s achievement in highlevel math courses. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 17–28.
- Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist,52, 1280–1300.
- Inzlicht, M., McKay, L., & Aronson, J. (2006). Stigma as ego depletion: How being the target of prejudice affects self-control. Psychological Science, 17, 262-269.
- John, M., Schmader, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2008). Stereotype threat and executive resource depletion: Examining the influence of emotion regulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 137, 691-705.
- Levy, B. (1996). Improving memory in old age through implicit self-stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1092-1107.
- O’Brien, L. T., & Crandall, C. S. (2003). Stereotype threat and arousal: Effects on women’s math performance. Personality and Social PsychologyBulletin, 29, 782–789.
- Pittinsky, T. L., Shih, M., & Ambady, N. (1999). Identity adaptiveness and affect across one’s multiple identities. Journal of Social Issues: Special Issue: Prejudice and intergroup relations: Papers in honor of Allport’s Centennial, 55, 503–518.693-705.
- Schmader, T. (2002). Gender identification moderates stereotype threat effects on women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental SocialPsychology, 38, 194–201.
- Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 440-452.
- Seibt, B., & Förster, J. (2004). Stereotype threat and performance: How self-stereotypes influence processing by inducing regulatory foci. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 38-56.
- Spencer, S. (2003, February). Media images and stereotype threat: How activation of cultural stereotypes can undermine women’s math performance. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Universal City, CA. Ståhl, T. Van Laar, C., & Ellemers, N. (2010). Why stereotype threat impairs cognitive performance when in a prevention focus: initial cognitive mobilization at the expense of endurance. Manuscript submitted for publication.
- 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.
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.
- Vick, S. B., Seery, M. D., Blascovich, J., & Weisbuch, M. (2008). The effect of gender stereotype activation on challenge and threat motivational states. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 624–630.
- Wheeler, S. C., & Petty, R. E. (2001). The effects of stereotype activation on behavior: A review of possible mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin,127, 797–826.