Imagine a young woman is about to take a math test. Just before she picks up her No. 2 pencil, her teacher mentions the old saw that girls are bad with numbers. Even if she’s actually a math whiz, the student is liable to do worse than she would have done if her teacher had kept his trap shut. Such is the power of something called stereotype threat: When you’re made aware that society expects people like you to do poorly at a given task, your performance tends to conform to that expectation.
Not only do stereotypes offer prejudiced folk an excuse to discriminate, the mere mention of a stereotype often prompts a target to divert precious mental resources away from the task at hand.
In other words, not only do stereotypes offer prejudiced folk an excuse to discriminate, the mere mention of a stereotype often prompts a target to divert precious mental resources away from the task at hand. Whether it’s trash-talk like “white men can’t jump” or the idea, perpetuated in books like The Bell Curve, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, stereotypes don’t just shut doors, they get under the target’s skin.
The term stereotype threat was coined in a 1995 study that involved administering parts of the GRE to black and white Stanford students. When the test was presented as measuring intellectual ability, the black students did worse; when it was presented simply as a way for researchers to observe how students solved problems, the black students’ performance matched that of equally qualified whites. Researchers were stunned to discover the degree to which the black-white achievement gap, which had persisted even in the growing black middle class, was erased simply by avoiding any hint of the centuries-old prejudice about black intelligence.
This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue of Pacific Standard as “Stereotype Threat.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.