There are people who think and believe the really negative stereotypes, such as those about different races and ethnicities, women, blondes, etc. Since most of these people are idiots, it’s best to just simply ignore them and not let their ridiculousness affect you. Unfortunately it’s not always that easy, especially if you fall into one of those groups subject to the stereotype. Besides their ignorance, the real problem has to do with the phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” If you are reminded of a negative stereotype about the demographic of which you identify, you are more likely to conform to it. So instead of taking on the “I’ll show you” attitude and actually succeeding, you are more likely to give them the depiction they already hold and believe to be true.
Several studies have been conducted to replicate the findings first reported in the 1995 study by Steele and Aronson, which showed that invoking group memberships associated with stereotypes can harm performance on tasks where poor performance might confirm the stereotype. This study discusses how black people end up doing worse on a test if they’re told it’s an intelligence test – due to the awful stereotype. Another study discusses how older people do worse on tests on memory and cognition if they’re told it’s a test of age and memory. This study discuss how female chess players end up playing worse if they’re told their opponent is male – since obviously men are better than women at playing chess (hopefully you caught my sarcasm).
Stereotype threat appears to cause harm to the performance of any task where a stereotype is invoked, suggesting that members of the same group will perform more poorly than other groups. While the actual cause of the harmed performance is still up for debate, research has shown that factors such as anxiety, psychological arousal (increased blood pressure) and decreased cognitive capacity can all happen as a result of stereotype threat and harm performance.
In addition to reduced performance, other harmful results of stereotype threat include internal attributes for failure, self-handicapping and altered professional identities and aspirations. While there are instances of stereotype threat working as a motivator and resulting in an individual exceeding expectations, unfortunately it is not the norm.
Effective ways to reduce stereotype threat include:
Reframing the Task:
Use different language to describe the task or test being issued. Don’t let the description highlight social identities stereotypically associated with poor performance.
Deemphasize Threatened Social Identities:
Think of yourself in terms of your positive and valued characteristics; why you should do well. One study showed that women who were encouraged to think of their positive traits were less likely to experience stereotype threat in math. Another study showed that the contextual cue of reminding female undergraduates of their status as a college student, a group that is expected to do well in math, helped to eliminate stereotype threat. So, think of a reason why you are expected to do well, not the opposite.
Affirm your self worth. Think about characteristics, skills, values that are viewed as important. This sounds obvious, but according to studies, the results are pretty drastic. A study conducted in 2006 comprised of two groups of seventh graders were asked to self-affirm or not to self-affirm as part of a classroom exercise. Those who were not asked to self-affirm were directed to identify their least valued characteristics and write an essay on why those characteristics may be important to others. As you’d expect, those who self-affirmed ended up earning a higher grade than those who did not.
Emphasize High Standards with Assurances about Capability for Meeting Them:
In a teacher/mentor situation, constructive feedback should be given in a way that communicates high standards of performance, while reassuring the student that he or she is capable of meeting them. Doing so reduces any perceived bias and signals to students that they will not be judged stereotypically and that their abilities are assumed, not questioned.
Look to those who have broken through the stereotype threat. If you are someone who has done so, I strongly encourage you to motivate others, especially kids, and represent proof that they too are capable. Let’s break the cycle and kill the stereotypes.