Prejudice lecture examines the impact of stereotypes

Dr. Joshua Aronson explains how stereotypes that people are aware of can have an impact on their academic performance.

by Paul Mullin

Awareness of common stereotypes can have a direct, adverse impact on academic performance, according to a New York University (NYU) professor.

Dr. Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, introduced this concept, called “stereotype threat” (ST), a theory that states when individuals are aware of a stereotype pertaining to a group they belong to — women being less apt at mathematics, for example — they will perform worse in an academic setting.

“Everyone experiences this in some form,” Aronson said. “You don’t have to be a minority group member. We all belong to groups that have some kind of reputation.”

According to Aronson, who spoke Wednesday night in the BLC Theater for the second annual Marvin W. Goldstein Lecture on Prejudice Reduction. this challenges the traditional explanation of genetics as to why certain groups don’t do as well as others, such as black students doing less well in academics than white students.

He presented data showing that the black/white or male/female performance gap does not even exist at birth or in preschool, but once students reach K-12 schooling, the gap “expresses itself in lower standardized test scores” and grows over time.

“This is a constant and consistent theme we will see in American education, and, in fact, it extends well beyond education,” Aronson said. “When we propose an intervention to try and fix a problem, we often make it worse, and in this case the intervention is called school.”

Aronson added, “there needs to be no explicit bigotry for someone to be impaired” by ST, or for them to think that they will perform less well on a test because of a stereotype.

With this in mind, Aronson conducted several studies — that have since been replicated over 200 times — in which he and a colleague attempted to ascertain the exact impact of ST on performance.

In one such study, Group 1 was told to indicate their race before answering even a single question on the test, while Group 2 was asked to do so at the very end. The presence of ST was again confirmed when the black/white gap reappeared in Group 1 and again disappeared in Group 2.

Aronson attributed this impact to a stereotype left over from America’s unsavory past.

“When you want to deny an entire group an education, which is what happened during slavery, you have to make up an explanation that sounds reasonable, and the reason they came up with is that black people are not educable,” Aronson said. “This stereotype has been flourishing since that time, and it has gotten better, but has not gone away completely.”

In what Aronson called his “absolute favorite experiment,” researchers tried to create an ST: white males being bad at math, a stereotype that really does not exist. Aronson said this was also to prove that “this can happen among people who are really, really smart and confident.”

An extremely difficult test was administered to a group of elite Stanford University engineering students, all white males. Group 1 was told it was simply a test of mathematical ability. Group 2 was told the test was created to “find out why it is that Asians are so good at math,” utilizing another typical stereotype.

Group 1 averaged nine of 18 questions answered correctly, while Group 2 averaged six of 18 correct answers, effectively confirming Aronson’s hypothesis.

And according to Aronson, when people learn about ST, “the scores get better.”

“If you learn about ST, you perform far better in a threatening situation than someone would in a non-threatening situation,” Aronson said. “It makes you better, it makes you wiser and it turns a threat into a challenge that increases your performance.”

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