Business Psychology

Article No. 377
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.


Research reveals stereotype threat as an important impediment to learning.

Once upon a time, a physics teacher welcomed a new classroom of students at the beginning of the fall term. There were 16 boys and a single girl. When the students' questions turned to tests and grading, this was the teacher's answer: "Your test scores will be placed on a grading curve, and there will be a boy curve and a girl curve. Girls can not be expected to compete on an equal basis with boys in physics since they have lesser ability in the field. To be fair to girls, their performance needs to be compared to other girls."

If you were the girl in this physics class, how would you react?

The subject raised by this example is stereotype threat, and nearly all of us will experience it at some time in our lives.

Stereotype threat exists when individuals are faced with the risk of confirming by their actions a negative stereotype about one's group. The physics teacher called attention to a negative stereotype about women's abilities in physics. Any action by the girl - questions, comments, homework assignments, or test answers - poses a risk to her of confirming to the group and the teacher that the stereotype is true and that she shares this deficiency.

Our western society is comprised of a multitude of subgroups, and nearly all of them carry one or more negative stereotypes. In order to appreciate the girl in the physics class, one needs only to imagine being in a competitive setting where a negative stereotype is raised about a group to which one belongs and then being asked to perform.

James Grand from the University of Maryland studies stereotype threat. In his most recent experiments, he studied its impact on 114 women in a 3-day technical training program. He explored its effect on learning activities and on their working memory.

As we progress through a learning experience, our working memory allocates attention to thoughts, information, advanced reasoning, and synthesizing information. It is our working memory that notices similarities between new information and existing knowledge, and it is our working memory that cautions us that something we are about to say could make us look foolish. Grand guessed that stereotype threat would add a new burden onto working memory that would handicap the women in his study on the learning task, and he was right, but how did this happen?

Grand compared two groups of women. One group received instructions that explicitly stated a negative stereotype about women in technical fields. The second group did not receive this instruction. In both groups, negative feedback occurred when learners committed errors.

For the second group, when they committed errors and received negative feedback, they tended to focus their attention on factors leading to the errors and how to prevent them in future trials. For women in the first group, when they committed errors and received negative feedback, they tended to focus their attention on negative, affective self-evaluations. Women in this group disengaged prematurely from the learning task. Stereotype threat undermined the women's ability to regulate and sustain their attention to the learning task. The more difficult the task, the more likely they were to disengage and exert less effort.

Although stereotype threat may be more common than we would like, it is not inevitable, and when it is absent, so are its destructive effects. Think of it as a vulnerability that could impede the learning efforts of any of your employees. An organizational culture that discourages the voicing of negative stereotypes and promotes positive expectations for all will reduce the damage stereotype threat can inflict.

Reference: Grand, J.A. (2017) Brain Drain? An examination of stereotype threat effects during training on knowledge acquisition and organizational effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102, 115-150.

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Keywords: stereotypes, attention, learning, memory impairment
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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