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Steele Article - ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION Stereotype...

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Unformatted text preview: ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans Claude M. Steele Stanford University Joshua Aronson University of Texas, Austin Stereotype threat is being at risk of confirming, as self—characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. Studies I and 2 varied the stereotype vulnerability of Black participants taking a diffi- cult verbal test by varying whether or not their performance was ostensibly diagnostic of ability, and thus, whether or not they were at risk of fulfilling the racial stereotype about their intellectual ability. Reflecting the pressure of this vulnerability, Blacks underperformed in relation to Whites in the ability-diagnostic condition but not in the nondiagnostic condition (with Scholastic Aptitude Tests controlled). Study 3 validated that ability-diagnosticity cognitively activated the racial stereotype in these participants and motivated them not to conform to it, or to be judged by it. Study 4 showed that mere salience of the stereotype could impair Blacks’ performance even when the test was not ability diagnostic. The role of stereotype vulnerability in the standardized test performance of abil- ity-stigmatized groups is discussed. Not long ago, in explaining his career-long preoccupation with the American Jewish experience, the novelist Philip Roth said that it was not Jewish culture or religion per se that fasci- nated him, it was what he called the Jewish “predicament.” This is an apt term for the perspective taken in the present research. It focuses on a social-psychological predicament that can arise from widely-known negative stereotypes about one’s group. It is this: the existence of such a stereotype means that anything one does or any of one’s features that conform to it make the stereotype more plausible as a self-characterization in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in one’s own eyes. We call this pre- dicament stereotype threat and argue that it is experienced, es- sentially, as a self-evaluative threat. In form, it is a predicament that can beset the members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist. Consider the stereotypes elicited by the terms yuppie, feminist, liberal, or White male. Their prevalence in society raises the possibility for potential targets that the stereo- type is true of them and, also, that other people will see them that way. When the allegations of the stereotype are importantly Claude M. Steele. Department of Psychology, Stanford University; Joshua Aronson, School of Education. University of Texas, Austin. This research was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant MH51977, Russell Sage Foundation Grant 879.304, and by Spencer Foundation and James S. McDonnell Foundation postdoctoral fellow- ships, and its completion was aided by the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. We thank John Butner, Emmeline Chen, and Matthew McGlone for assistance and helpful comments on this research. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Claude M. Steele, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stan- ford, California 94305, or Joshua Aronson, School of Education, Uni- versity ofTexas, Austin, Texas 78712. negative, this predicament may be self-threatening enough to have disruptive effects of its own. The present research examined the role these processes play in the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Our reasoning is this: whenever African American students per- form an explicitly scholastic or intellectual task, they face the threat of confirming or being judged by a negative societal ste— reotype—a suspicion—about their group’s intellectual ability and competence. This threat is not borne by people not stereo- typed in this way. And the self-threat it causes—through a va- riety of mechanisms—may interfere with the intellectual functioning of these students, particularly during standardized tests. This is the principal hypothesis examined in the present research. But as this threat persists over time, it may have the further effect of pressuring these students to protectively dis- identify with achievement in school and related intellectual domains. That is, it may pressure the person to define or rede- fine the self-concept such that school achievement is neither a basis of self-evaluation nor a personal identity. This protects the person against the self-evaluative threat posed by the ste— reotypes but may have the byproduct of diminishing interest, motivation, and, ultimately, achievement in the domain (Steele, 1992). The anxiety of knowing that one is a potential target of prej- udice and stereotypes has been much discussed: in classic social science (e.g., Allport, 1954; Goffman, 1963), popular books (e.g., Carter, 1991 ) and essays, as, for example, S. Steele’s ( 1990) treatment of what he called racial vulnerability In this last analysis, S. Steele made a connection between this experi- ence and the school life of African Americans that has similari- ties to our own. He argued that after a lifetime of exposure to society’s negative images of their ability, these students are likely to internalize an “inferiority anxiety”—a state that can be Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology. 1995. Vol. 69, No. 5. 797—8] 1 Copynght I995 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0022-35 14/955100 797 798 CLAUDE M. STEELE AND JOSHUA ARONSON aroused by a variety of race—related cues in the environment. This anxiety, in turn, can lead them to blame others for their troubles (for example, White racism ), to underutilize available opportunities, and to generally form a victim’s identity. These adaptations, in turn, the argument goes, translate into poor life success. The present theory and research do not focus on the internal- ization of inferiority images or their consequences. Instead they focus on the immediate situational threat that derives from the broad dissemination of negative stereotypes about one’s group—the threat of possibly being judged and treated stereo- typically, or of possibly self-fulfilling such a stereotype. This threat can befall anyone with a group identity about which some negative stereotype exists, and for the person to be threat- ened in this way, he need not even believe the stereotype. He need only know that it stands as a hypothesis about him in situ- ations where the stereotype is relevant. We focused on the ste- reotype threat of African Americans in intellectual and scho- lastic domains to provide a compelling test of the theory and because the theory, should it be supported in this context for this group, would have relevance to an important set of outcomes. Gaps in school achievement and retention rates between White and Black Americans at all levels of schooling have been strikingly persistent in American society (e.g., Steele, 1992). Well publicized at the kindergarten through 12th grade level, recent statistics show that they persist even at the college level where. for example, the national drop-out rate for Black college students (the percentage who do not complete college within a 6-year window of time) is 70% compared to 42% for White Americans (American Council on Education, 1990). Even among those who graduate, their grades average two thirds of letter grade lower than those of graduating Whites (e.g., Nettles, 1988 ). It has been most common to understand such problems as stemming largely from the socioeconomic disadvantage, seg- regation, and discrimination that African Americans have en- dured and continue to endure in this society, a set of conditions that, among other things, could produce racial gaps in achieve- ment by undermining preparation for school. Some evidence, however, questions the sufficiency of these ex- planations. It comes from the sizable literature examining racial bias in standardized testing. This work, involving hundreds of studies over several decades, generally shows that standardized tests predict subsequent school achievement as well for Black students as for White students (e.g., Cleary, Humphreys, Ken- drick, & Wesman, 1975; Linn, 1973; Stanley, 1971). The slope of the lines regressing subsequent school achievement on entry- level standardized test scores is essentially the same for both groups. But embedded in this literature is another fact: At every level of preparation as measured by a standardized test—for example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—Black students with that score have poorer subsequent achievement—GPA, re- tention rates, time to graduation, and so on—than White stu- dents with that score (Jensen, 1980). This is variously known as the overprediction or underachievement phenomenon, be- cause it indicates that, relative to Whites with the same score, standardized tests actually overpredict the achievement that Blacks will realize. Most important for our purposes, this evi- dence suggests that Black—White achievement gaps are not due solely to group differences in preparation. Blacks achieve less well than Whites even when they have the same preparation, and even when that preparation is at a very high level. Could this underachievement, in some part, reflect the stereotype threat that is a chronic feature of these students’ schooling environments? Research from the early 19605—largely that of Irwin Katz and his colleagues (e.g., Katz, 1964) on how desegregation affected the intellectual performance of Black students—shows the sizable influence on Black intellectual performance of fac- tors that can be interpreted as manipulations of stereotype threat. Katz, Roberts, and Robinson ( 1965), for example, found that Black participants performed better on an IQ subtest when it was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination—a nonevaluative and thus threat-negating test representation— than when it was said to be a test of intelligence. Katz, Epps, and Axelson ( 1964) found that Black students performed better on an IQ test when they believed their performance would be compared to other Blacks as opposed to Whites. But as evidence that bears on our hypothesis, this literature has several limita- tions. Much of the research was conducted in an era when American race relations were different in important ways than they are now. Thus, without their being replicated, the extent to which these findings reflect enduring processes of stereotype threat as opposed to the racial dynamics of a specific historical era is not clear. Also, this research seldomly used White control groups. Thus it is difficult to know the extent to which some of the critical effects were mediated by the stereotype threat of Black students as opposed to processes experienced by any students. Other research supports the present hypothesis by showing that factors akin to stereotype threat——that is, other factors that add self-evaluative threat to test taking or intellectual per- formance—are capable of disrupting that performance. The presence of observers or coactors, for example, can interfere with performance on mental tasks (e.g., Geen, 1985', Seta, 1982). Being a “token” member of a group—the sole repre- sentative of a social category—can inhibit one’s memory for what is said during a group discussion (Lord & Saenz, 1985; Lord, Saenz, & Godfrey, 1987). Conditions that increase the importance of performing well—prizes, competition, and au- dience approval—have all been shown to impair performance of even motor skills (e.g., Baumeister, 1984). The stereotype threat hypothesis shares with these approaches the assumption that performance suffers when the situation redirects attention needed to perform a task onto some other concern—in the case of stereotype threat, a concern with the significance of one’s performance in light of a devaluing stereotype. For African American students, the act of taking a test pur- ported to measure intellectual ability may be enough to induce this threat. But we assume that this is most likely to happen when the test is also frustrating. It is frustration that makes the stereotype—as an allegation of inability—relevant to their performance and thus raises the possibility that they have an inability linked to their race. This is not to argue that the ste- reotype is necessarily believed; only that, in the face of frustra- tion with the test, it becomes more plausible as a self-charac- terization and thereby more threatening to the self. Thus for Black students who care about the skills being tested—that is, those who are identified with these skills in the sense of their self-regard being somewhat tied to having them—the stereo- RACIAL STEREOTYPES AND TEST PERFORMANCE 799 type loads the testing situation with an extra degree of self- threat, a degree not borne by people not stereotyped in this way. This additional threat, in turn. may interfere with their performance in a variety of ways: by causing an arousal that reduces the range of cues participants are able to use (e.g.. Easterbrook. 1959 ). or by diverting attention onto task-irrele- vant worries (e.g., Sarason. 1972; Wine, 1971 ). by causing an interfering self-consciousness (e.g., Baumeister. 1984). or overcautiousness ( Geen. 1985 ). Or. through the ability-indict- ing interpretation it poses for test frustration, it could foster low performance expectations that would cause participants to withdraw effort (e.g., Bandura. 1977. 1986). Depending on the situation. several of these processes may be involved simul- taneously or in alternation. Through these mechanisms, then, stereotype threat might be expected to undermine the stan- dardized test performance of Black participants relative to White participants who. in this situation. do not suffer this added threat. Study 1 Accordingly. Black and White college students in this experi- ment were given a 30-min test composed of items from the ver— bal Graduate Record Examination (GRE) that were difficult enough to be at the limits of most participants’ skills. In the stereotype-threat condition. the test was described as diagnostic of intellectual ability. thus making the racial stereotype about intellectual ability relevant to Black participants’ performance and establishing for them the threat of fulfilling it. In the non- stereotype-threat condition. the same test was described simply as a laboratory problem-solving task that was nondiagnostic of ability. Presumably. this would make the racial stereotype about ability irrelevant to Black participants’ performance and thus preempt any threat of fulfilling it. Finally. a second nondiagnos- tic condition was included which exhorted participants to view the difficult test as a challenge. For practical reasons we were interested in whether stressing the challenge inherent in a difficult test might further increase participants’ motivation and performance over what would occur in the nondiagnostic con- dition. The primary dependent measure in this experiment was participants’ performance on the test adjusted for the influence of individual differences in skill level (operationalized as partic- ipants’ verbal SAT scores). We predicted that Black participants would underperform relative to Whites in the diagnostic condition where there was stereotype threat. but not in the two nondiagnostic condi- tions—the non-diagnostic-only condition and the non-diagnos- tic-plus—challenge condition—where this threat was presum- ably reduced. In the non—diagnostic—challenge condition, we also expected the additional motivation to boost the perfor- mance of both Black and White participants above that ob- served in the non—diagnostic—only condition. Several additional measures were included to assess the effectiveness of the manip- ulation and possible mediating states. Method Design and Participants This experiment took the form of a 2 X 3 factorial design. The factors were race of the participant. Black or White. and a test description factor in which the test was presented as either diagnostic of intellectual ability (the diagnostic condition). as a laboratory tool for studying problem solv- ing (the non-diagnostic-only condition). or as both a problem—solving tool and a challenge (the non—diagnostic—challenge condition). Test perfor- mance was the primary dependent measure. We recruited 1 l7 male and female. Black and White Stanford undergraduates through campus adver- tisements which offered $ 10.00 for 1 hr of participation. The data from 3 participants were excluded from the analysis because they failed to provide their verbal SAT scores. This left a total of 1 14 participants randomly as- signed to the three experimental conditions with the exception that we ensured an equal number of participants per condition. Procedure Participants who signed up for the experiment were contacted by telephone prior to their experimental participation and asked to pro- vide their verbal and quantitative SAT scores. to rate their enjoyment of verbally oriented classes. and to provide background information (e.g.. year in school. major. etc.). When participants arrived at the laboratory. the experimenter (a White man) explained that for the next 30 min they would work on a set of verbal problems in a format identical to the SAT exam. and end by answering some questions about their experience. The participant was then given a page that stated the purpose ofthe study. described the procedure for answering questions. stressed the importance of indicating guessed answers (by a check). described the test as very difficult and that they should expect not to get many ofthe questions correct. and told them that they would be given feedback on their performance at the end of the session. We included the informa- tion about test difficulty to. as much as possible. equate participants‘ performance expectations across the conditions. And. by acknowledg- ing the difficulty of the test. we wanted to reduce the possibility that participants would see the test as a miscalculation of their skills and perhaps reduce their effort. This description was the same for all con- ditions with the exception of several key phrases that comprised the experimental manipulation. Participants in the diagnostic condition were told that the study was concerned with “various personal factors involved in performance on problems requiring reading and verbal reasoning abilities.“ They were further informed that after the test. feedback would be provided which “may be helpful to you by familiarizing you with some ofyour strengths and weaknesses” in verbal problem solving. As noted. participants in all conditions were told that they should not expect to get many items correct. and in the diagnostic condition. this test difficulty wasjustified as a means of providing a “genuine test of your verbal abilities and lim- itations so that we might better understand the factors involved in both.” Participants were asked to give a strong effort in order to “help us in our analysis of your verbal ability.” In the non-diagnostic-only and non-diagnostic-challenge conditions. the description of the study made no reference to verbal ability. Instead. participants were told that the purpose of the research was to better understand the “psychological factors involved in solving verbal prob- lems. . . These participants too were told that they would receive performance feedback. but it wasjustified as a means of familiarizing them “with the kinds of problems that appear on tests [they] may en- counter in the future.” In the non-diagnostic-only condition. the diffi- culty of the test was justified in terms of a research focus on difficult verbal problems and in the non-diagnostic-challenge condition it was justified as an attempt to provide “even highly verbal people with a men- tal challenge. . . Last, participants in both conditions were asked to give a genuine effort in order to “help us in our analysis ofthe problem solving process.” As the experimenter left them to work on the test...
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