• Robb G. Best

Stereotype Threat, or, Secret Messages and You

One of the most disorienting ideas in Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is just how susceptible humans are to priming.

Kahneman describes an experiment by psychologist John Bargh, in which students at New York University—mostly between the ages of 18 to 22—had to arrange sets of five words into four-word sentences. Half of the students were given words with a decidedly elderly slant: Florida, bingo, arthritis, and so on. The other half were given words with no real theme.

When the students were done, the experimenters measured how quickly it took them to get up and walk out the door. Without being aware of it, the students given "old person" words moved significantly slower.

Creepy, right?

It gets creepier. Bargh did another experiment, but this time half the group got rudeness-themed words ("abrupt") and half got politeness-themed words ("patient"). When the test was over, the student was instructed to walk to an office and hand their paper to another experimenter. However, when the student got there, another student (actually a stooge planted by Bargh) would be sitting there, distracting the experimenter with a series of questions.

Then the real test began: how long would it take the subject to get fed up and interrupt the chatty student? On average, those primed with rude words managed to wait about 5 minutes. And those primed with politeness?

They never interrupted. By the end of the experiment, a full ten minutes later, 82% of them were still standing there, papers in hand, waiting patiently, hopefully, sure that they'd get that window to turn in the paper any second now, any second now…

Priming doesn't just affect your walking speed; it has the potential to shape the way you treat others. But hold on to your hats, friends, because we haven't hit the ceiling on this creepiness thing yet.

When it comes to the unconscious brain, it really is remarkable how much of our responses seem to be beyond our control.

Psychologists Greg Walton of Stanford and Steven Spencer of the University of Waterloo have done some fascinating research into what's called stereotype threat. The idea is that people who belong to groups labeled as low-achieving—for example, women or ethnic minorities—can easily be primed to perform worse on standardized tests, just by getting them to fixate on that part of their identity.

It doesn't matter whether or not the students themselves buy into these stereotypes. Just getting their thoughts onto the topic calls to mind a whole host of associations—comments they've gotten from kids, stock characters seen in movies, things they've been told by disapproving teachers. Without even being aware of it, they feel the need to prove themselves, and prove the doubters wrong. Cortisol goes up. At the same time, they're struggling to push down the memories of the negative messages they've received—and ignoring those thoughts requires focus, which taxes the brain's glucose supply.

Suddenly it's a little harder to remember that ol' quadratic formula.

And the result is no joke. Walton and Spencer found that stereotype threat lowered many women's scores on the math portion of the SAT by about 20 points. Among black and Hispanic students, it could harm their SAT performance by 40 points.

How easy is this priming? In Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, Cordelia Fine points out that women's math or science scores are negatively affected by, among other things:

  • asking them to indicate their gender at the start of the test

  • putting them in a room with noticeably more male test-takers than females

  • having just dealt with instructors or other students who displayed sexist attitudes

  • having just seen ads featuring "women acting in air-headed ways"

Testing almost 19,000 students across the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden, Walton and Spencer concluded that if you control for stereotype threat, "ethnic minorities and women outperform non-minorities and men at the same level of past performance."

In other words, if a black student and a white student receive the exact same SAT score, it's likely that the black student will go on to perform better academically than their white counterpart. That SAT score wasn't a true measure of the black student's potential—it measured their ability to take a test while playing an invisible tug of war against society's expectations.

The subconscious brain is always scanning for behavioral cues. If you had to stop and analyze every single one of those messages on a conscious level, you'd never get anything done.

But given how media-saturated our lives have become, it kind of makes you wonder just what messages are making it into the control room. How is the ditzy cheerleader in that beer ad affecting your kids' test scores? What "data" is your brain picking out of movies and shows?

(Maybe it's a bad idea to watch that Golden Girls marathon right before you go out and run a 5k.)


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