FEEL: Stereotypes Affect Performance

"Everyone in a collective knows the stereotypes about a given target group, including the group members themselves, and everyone knows that everyone knows"

Study by Stanford University

STANFORD -- Standardized tests can not accurately measure intellectual merit because racial and gender stereotypes interfere with the intellectual functioning ofthose taking the tests, according to Stanford psychology Professor Claude Steele.

Steele reported his findings at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association on Saturday, Aug. 12, in New York City. The meeting also featured a task force report on what is known about genetic links to intelligence, and three other sessions devoted to the controversy over The Bell Curve. In that 1994 book, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argued that at least some part of group differences on IQ tests is inherited, reflecting some innate intellectual inferiority of African Americans.

In a symposium about several research projects at Stanford, the University of Michigan and the State University of New York, Steele detailed experiments on factors that can depress the academic performance of women and African Americans in college environments. His seven-year research project bears on three currently controversial issues:

  • How to interpret racial differences in test performance.
  • The way selective universities and others interpret standardized test scores in implementing affirmative action policies in admissions; and
  • The degree to which racial differences in college performance can be eliminated by appropriately designed schooling.

In laboratory testing at Stanford and in a field program at the University of Michigan, Steele found that a dynamic that he calls "stereotype vulnerability" may be responsible for depressed performance. He also found that the performance gaps between men and women in mathematics, and between whites and African Americans as expressed in test scores, grades, and dropout rates, can be eliminated with appropriately designed affirmative action programs.

"These findings demonstrate another process that may be contributing to racial and gender differences in standardized test performance, a process that is an alternative to the genetic interpretation suggested in The Bell Curve," Steele said before leaving for the conference. "And they show that group differences in school achievement can be reduced substantially by programs that emphasize challenge instead of a 'dumbing down' remediation."

Steele also said the findings "underscore the danger of relying too heavily on standardized test results in college admissions or otherwise. The research shows that societal stereotypes can systematically depress the test performance of some groups more than others, even when those groups enter the test situation with equal knowledge."

Steele's research - conducted since 1991 in the psychology department at Stanford with Joshua Aronson, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, graduate students Joseph Brown and Kirsten Stoutemyer, and with Steven Spencer at the State University of New York at Buffalo - is supported by grants from the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. It is the latest entry in a century-long controversy over alleged intelligence differences among groups such as European, African and Asian Americans, or women and men. Psychologists periodically argue over whether group differences on standardized tests stem from genetic differences and are thus more difficult to eradicate, or from environmental differences between groups, which are easier to change. Still others argue they merely reflect bias in the tests.

"To this set of explanations, our findings add a new possibility - that stereotype vulnerability and its differential impact on groups in the immediate testing situation" are responsible for a difference in performance, Steele wrote in a paper prepared for the annual meeting of the psychology association, an organization of 132,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students organized into four dozen sub-fields of psychology. (Stanford Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo participated at the convention in a symposium on shyness; psychology graduate student Lisa Stallworth presented research she did with Stanford Professor Felicia Pratto in another session on militaristic and nationalist attitudes.)

IQ research status: inconclusive

At a Sunday session on "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns," a task force established by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the APA discussed a report that was commissioned to grapple with the scientific, as opposed to the political, issues raised by the publication of The Bell Curve. Ulrick Neisser of Emory University chaired the task force.

"Like every other trait, intelligence is the joint product of genetic and environmental variables," the report said. "Gene action always involves a (biochemical or social) environment; environments always act via structures to which genes have contributed. Given a trait on which individuals vary, however, one can ask what fraction of that variation is associated with differences in their genotypes (this is the heritability of the trait), as well as what fraction is associated with differences in environmental experiences."

The differentials in average African American and European American IQ scores were treated in the report as a continuing puzzle requiring more study.

"African American IQ scores have long averaged about 15 points below those of whites, with correspondingly lower scores on academic achievement tests. In recent years the achievement-test gap has narrowed appreciably. It is possible that the IQ-score differential is narrowing as well, but this has not been clearly established. . . . Several culturally based explanations of the black/white IQ differential have been proposed; some are plausible, but so far none has been conclusively supported. There is even less empirical support for a genetic interpretation. In short, no adequate explanation of the differential between the IQ means of blacks and whites is presently available," the report said.

Steele's studies do not directly address ethnic group differences in IQ scores, but they do provide evidence about a possible mechanism for another less-well-known phenomenon in standardized test data - that equally prepared blacks will do more poorly in college than their white contemporaries.

"The gap can be substantial," Steele said in his paper. "In a recent cohort of graduates from a large prestigious university, the mean ACT score for white students with a C+ cumulative average was at the 34th percentile, while that for blacks with this average was at the 98th percentile."

The national college dropout rate for African Americans is 70 percent, compared to a 42 percent rate across all groups nationally. "We are in a crisis stage concerning African Americans and their schooling," he told the symposium audience at the Marriott Marquis Hotel.

Some have attributed such achievement gaps to lower motivation and achievement expectations, but Steele says that explanation seems inadequate, given that "the racial achievement gap is just as great among students testing at the 98th percentile - scores that presumably reflect high academic motivation and expectations - as it is among more typical students."

Steele's theory is that stereotype vulnerability, the unsettling expectation that one's membership in a stigmatized group will limit individual ability, may be at the root of lower grades and SAT scores for African Americans. Stereotype vulnerability raises interfering anxiety during testing or classroom situations, Steele wrote. The same dynamic also could explain why highly skilled women at the university level drop out of programs in math, engineering and the physical sciences, he added.

"Surprisingly, you don't have to believe in the stereotype to be vulnerable to it," he pointed out to his audience at the APA convention.

"Everyone in a collective knows the stereotypes about a given target group, including the group members themselves, and everyone knows that everyone knows," Steele wrote in a paper prepared for the convention. "Thus the predicament of 'stereotype vulnerability': The group members then know that anything about them or anything they do that fits the stereotype can be taken as confirming it as self-characteristic, in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in their own eyes. This vulnerability amounts to a jeopardy of double devaluation: once for whatever bad thing the stereotype-fitting behavior or feature would say about anyone, and again for its confirmation of the bad things alleged in the stereotype.

"Consider the woman student who gives the wrong answer in math class. She is vulnerable to the judgment, as is anyone, that she lacks a particular skill. But she is also vulnerable to confirming, or to being seen as confirming, the deeper limitation alleged in the stereotype."

Steele's experimental evidence

In a number of experiments, Steele and his colleagues were able to depress the average performance of high-achieving African American and women college students by subtly implying that well-known stereotypes about those groups' intellectual ability might apply to the test they were about to take.

In one case, Steele and his colleagues tested to see whether "stereotype vulnerability" also could be induced among white males by indicating to test takers that Asians have tended in the past to do better than Americans on a difficult mathematics exam.

In this experiment, white male Stanford students, who presumably do not have a lifetime of experience with being stigmatized, performed less well than a control group of white males who were not "placed under suspicion" by the circumstances of the testing. That suggests, Steele said, that stereotype vulnerability is something that can afflict people in general.

Circumstances that the researchers set up in the laboratory are common in some classrooms. They included such practices as having students check off their race on a form before taking a test, or having an instructor indicate that a math test that is about to be taken is one that may show gender differences.

But in control groups where similar students were given no reason to suspect that the demeaning stereotypes would apply to their performance, both African Americans and women performed as well as whites and males, respectively, on extremely challenging tests, the report said. READ MORE

Image: Reproduction from the 1908 Binet-Simon intelligence scale, the tested child was asked, "Which of these two faces is the prettier?" Image Credit: J. E. Wallace Wallin - The Psychological Clinic volume 5 number 1 March 1911