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Conversation #10: Stereotype Threat

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Josh Aronson

A conversation with Dr. Josh Aronson of New York University on teaching, learning, and stereotype threat.

People perform better when they don't feel their intelligence is being evaluated. So in a very broad way, if you can create an environment that takes the heat off of intelligence — and I think different teachers do this in a variety of ways — so if they say, look, I'm here to evaluate not how smart you are, but what I have been able to teach you... Now the onus is on me. Now the bell curve isn't about you. I am being put on a bell curve as your teacher. So you can sort of shift the emphasis from evaluation of your intelligence to evaluation of my ability to teach you. I've had teachers come to me and tell me that when they [do this] the kids do much better, and they aren't vomiting on their exam pages anymore.

Links referenced in this episode:

  • "Stereotypes and the Fragility of Academic Competence, Motivation, and Self-Concept" by Joshua Aronson and Claude M. Steele. From Handbook of Competence and Motivation, 2005. [PDF courtesy of the author]

EH: Hello today I am speaking with Dr. Joshua Aronson from NYU’s Steinhart School of culture, education, and human development.  Dr. Aronson holds a PhD in social physiology from Princeton University and did post doctorate work at Stanford University.  He is a recipient of numerous awards including a career award from the national science foundation and an early career award from the American physiological association. He has been studying stereotypes, self-esteem, and motivation for over thirteen years.  And most of his work seeks to understand and remediate race and gender gaps in educational achievement in standardized tests performance. Specifically he has explored how negative stereotypes can be threatening. A predicament he and colleagues call stereotype threat.  Hello Dr. Aronson how are you doing today?

JA: I’m doing great, hello.

EH: thanks for speaking to me today.  I’ve been looking forward to this and looking forward to hearing about your work. I thought we could start by describing what is stereotype threat and describe some of that original research on it.

JA:  Stereotype threat is name that we gave to an experience. And the experience is this: If you belong to a group that has wide spread cultural stereotypes about it and the stereotype is negative, you find yourself in situations where your reputation is on the line—where you’re confronted by that stereotype. For example I am a Jewish person and when I have been in places where Jews are not common and people feel free to talk about stereotypes about Jewish people, I feel a sense of threat that I might do something to confirm the negative implications of that stereotype. For example in Texas when I lived there, there were people there who hadn’t met a lot of Jews and they felt like they could talk about Jews in broad strokes like “Jews are good with money”.  And I remember being asked to explain why Jews were so rich and why were they so good with money. In fact the person asked me whether we have a gene that makes us good at making money and you know it’s not decidedly a negative stereotype. Like most stereotypes it ignores vast differences amongst people in a group. And this one is a glaring difference because I am not rich and so it always seem like a strange stereotype to me.  So now I’m supposed to answer why Jews are so rich and I can do that. I can say that Jews aren’t rich, but nonetheless the stereotype is out there.  And I remember explaining to this person that Jews weren’t rich and this was just a stereotype and she accepted it. But a funny thing happened; we were at lunch and it was time to pay the bill for lunch and now the money stereotype was made relevant so I didn’t know what to do because this was a Realtor we were working with and I didn’t know whether it was appropriate for me to pay lunch and so I thought well I’ll pay for lunch. Then it hit me that if I do that than it might confirm the stereotype that this person has about me or about Jews in general. So I decided not to offer to pay the bill, then it hit me that there’s this other stereotype about Jewish people that they’re cheap so in a since my behavior became constrained by the fact that I didn’t want to confirm the negative stereotype.  Now that is sort of a humorous episode. There are lots of situations which stereotype does not give rise to humor, but a sense of real threat. For example in our culture African Americans are stereotyped as having a lower intelligence so for a kid whose black and taking an IQ test—now nobody wants to take an IQ test necessarily and there’s a certain amount of pressure associated with that. But for a black kid who has to sort of try to disprove this stereotype, there’s an extra burden. So the experience is one that is accompanied by a good deal of anxiety, apprehension, distraction, and neuroscientists are starting to find that you can measure this.  You can measure the fact that peoples memory get worse when they’re under stereotype threat, that their blood pressure can go up under stereotype threat, and what we found is that when people are under stereotype threat they’re less good at producing intelligent thought.  Give them an IQ test, put them under stereotype threat, make them think about the stereotype, and their performance will go down often by a significant degree, sometimes as much as a full standard deviation in performance—which is an order of magnitude below what that same person would perform on an IQ test if they’re not under stereotype threat.

In our original experiments to test this we simply gave people tests and changed the way they thought about it. If people thought we were using the test to measure their intelligence black students would do much worse on the test then if we told them we were not using the test to measure their intelligence. We could turn stereotype threat on and off just by describing what we were up to on the test so that stereotype threat.  And there has been over 350 experiments showing the same thing in a variety of groups like woman and math. Woman in this culture are not supposed to be as good as math as men. That’s a stereotype that’s diminishing over time but it’s still quite present in society. And we found the same things with woman taking math tests, with Latinos taking verbal tests, and with old people taking tests with short-term memory.

EH: that was such an interesting story about the money, lunch, and the Realtor. That really captured the essence of stereotype threat kind of I don’t want to do this but I do and the anxiety it produces. Was that your initial interest in it or were you already studying it by then?

JA:  I was and these things you know when they happen to you, you don’t really code what’s going on and often when you study a phenomenon it throws light on things that happen to you early on in your life. I can think of a lot of situations in which I faced this in various early periods of my life before I even came up with term stereotype threat or even the notion of it. No I came to this by falling in love with a guy named Clyde Steel and I had fallen in love with his work on self-esteem and self-affirmation and when he invited me to do a post opt with him I thought we were going to work on this other research I had done my dissertation on.  For the first year he kept [inaudible] me to start working on this other stuff because he had some vague notions of it and knew that there was some phenomenon to be studied, but we really didn’t have a sense of how to do the work. He finally talked me into it. I wasn’t black and I thought this was about black people at that time and I didn’t feel like I had insights about it, but very quickly once I designed and started running experiments and I saw this phenomenon unfold in front of my eyes and I saw the way the data was and I was talking to hundreds of students about their experiences I realized that this was much more than just a theory about black people or about woman in math. It was really about how does a human organism who is motivated to think of themselves in a positive light and motivated to have other people think of them in positive light – how do they cope? How do they contend with these systematic threats to their own self-image and their public image? And I found the fact that you can manipulate these variables and change just little things in the environment and it would have an effect on actual intelligent thought. I found that intoxicating is the word. I have not looked back since. I’m still sort of agape at how fragile human intelligence can be. We think of it as this stable thing yet it’s going up and down depending on little things in the situation or the relationships we have and I find that endlessly fascinating.  Not only because I want to understand what makes peoples intelligence function well but also because it holds so much promise for engineering situations to bring the best out of peoples intelligence.

EH: I do think that’s a really fascinating component of stereotype threat—it’s not a cognitive component but a social component and to really start to explore achievement in that way I think is really interesting.

JA:  it’s actionable. I study the achievement gap and so many things people attribute to the big gaps and performance to be things that are without a massive societal change will be sort of hard-core realities. But here’s something that you can give people a different way of what they’re doing. I think that gives us great hope that we can learn how to harness the findings form the laboratory in the real world.

EH: For listeners who are not familiar with this work of wonder can you comment real quickly on the implications of stereotype threat for arguments like the bell curve and the controversy. There are some people who aren’t even aware of the controversy in psychology.

JA: Ever since the days of the founding of this country and even before when we were bring black people to this country to be our slaves we have denied them an education.  And so one of the rationalizations for that were these people are intellectually inferior so there for educating them would be a waste of time.  They can’t learn anyway. So there have been long standing theories to explain why black people don’t do as well in society. And one of them is that genetic theory that they simply lack the IQ as a group to do hard intellectual work. And sure enough if you find justifying this belief is lower performance on IQ tests and standardized tests in general; a big gap—at least a standard deviation. So that means 15 points on an IQ test and on the SAT a couple hundred points overall.  So people argue that the test scores really reflect an underline difference in intellectual ability. So what we come along and say is wait a second it’s not that simple there are things that are highly correlated with being black that don’t have much to do with intelligence but they do have something to do with the way you perform on an intelligence test. So in other words there’s this other reason that people may not score well on a test.  And I think that anyone who suffers from test anxiety can tell you that they are a lot smarter than there test scores would indicate. So what we are saying is that there is this systematic suppression of intellectual performance that occurs along people who belong to groups that are expected or suspected of lacking intelligence. You can see it on an individual level as well, if you have a personal reputation, if you have been unlucky enough to be in a situation where people will infer that you are less intelligent than other people than you will have a personal reputation that acts like a stereotype threat. For example I think of George W. Bush this way, where everybody in the country sort of thinks that he is less intelligent then he actually is and you can sort of prove this because I have done studies where we get people to estimate his SAT scores. What do they use is their bases, they use the way he sounds when he is speaking in front of the camera. He is famous for saying, “I know that Americans are struggling to put food on their families” and other such gaps that sort of suggest a lower intelligence. But people grossly underestimate his SAT scores, they think he got barley average, they think that he got in the thousands on his SAT, he actually got a 1330. So, what happens is that, here is a guy who walks into a situation and he’s got to know that everyone thinks that he is a dummy and that suppresses his intelligence but you can actually find film of him before he has developed this reputation. Where he is incredibly articulate, where he doesn’t pause before forcing out words, where he doesn’t invent new words or create what they now refer as “Bushism”. It’s quit striking that in some situation he is much smarter than others, but we aren’t pretty to those situations where he is smarter because every time we see him the cameras are rolling and the pressure is on. I think that this tells us something very profound about intelligence testing as well, so if you are a black kid and every time someone is assessing your intelligence you are under this extra pressure, the situation is so loaded that you are not really getting a good picture of what the kid can do or the student can do, because this extra pressure is blunting their ability to express it.

EH: Well to shift gears a little bit here, what is some of you research on reducing the effects of stereotype threat and remediating this for students. Specifically in classroom and academic settings, you know our primary audience is faculty members.

JA: The studies themselves, the laboratory studies offer some close. For Example, what we find is that people perform better when they don’t feel like their intelligence is being evaluated, in a very broad way you can create an environment that takes the heat off intelligence, I think that different teachers do this in a variety of ways. So, if they say I am here to evaluate not how smart you are but what I have been able to teach you. So now the onset is on me, now the bell curve isn’t about you it about how I am being put on a bell curve as a teacher. So you can sort of shift the emphasis from evaluation of your intelligence to my evaluation of my ability to teach you. I have had teachers come to me and tell me that when they tell their students before the test that the test is not about testing them but testing the degree of if they have been taught well, that the kids do much better and that they are not vomiting in their exams pages any more. So whatever one can do to reduce the sense that intelligence is being tested. Academics tend to prides intelligence a lot. I remember being in environments where I would over hear on my post-op a professor discussing with another professor, well who’s smart? It was just sort of a deep of a question like, well who's fat? In an environment where that seems to be the focus, this seems to really engender a lot of stereotype for us.

EH: Well, when you were saying the things about shifting the bell curve and the onset of a teacher, I can hear faculty members saying, ‘’My test aren’t about how well I teach, I taught well it’s the unmotivated student, the test aren’t supposed to be about how well I taught it’s about how well they studied and learned.” Do you meet resistance to that notion?

 JA: Well, you know I travel in educational circles and sure I meet resistance to it especially among teachers that are kind of burned out and the last thing you want to do is blame yourself for peoples not learning. It’s pretty typical that there’s a lot of the finger tending to point outwards and not towards oneself and that’s human nature right there. That’s not restricted to that kind of topic, everybody blames somebody else. And it is traditional that we grad the student much more than we grade the professor and I am not saying that sometimes students don’t deserve negative grades and that is all upon the teacher, but what I am saying is that you can put a negative charge in the environment just by using the word smart a lot. Even if you are saying it in a nice way, if you praise somebody for being intelligent it can create a sense of nervousness, now you have a label that you have to live up to. Even students that have positive stereotypes about them like Asian students are made quite nervous about demonstrating the amount of intelligence that they are their group is supposed to have. So, I think taking the emphasis off being smart and putting it on getting smarter is the way to go. That’s what some of my specific research looks at, for example we can give the same exam to different students but if we tell them that the abilities that we are measuring is something that people can improve on with practice then we would see less anxiety, we see higher performance and we see greater engagement in a task. If we tell people what we are testing you on is something that you are endowed by your birth width, you can’t increase it much and good luck on the test then they tend to get very nervous. In this case it’s sort of like uh oh the score that I am going to get this could be carved on my tomb stone it’s not going to change. That’s a pretty threatening environment to be in; we find that regardless of your race when you emphasize the non-expandable ability version of intelligence or academic ability then people tense up.

EH: Wow, have you looked specifically in high achievers versus low achievers? Is that true on how high a student is.

JA: Well there is some twist to this, you put your finger right on it, and it looks like there is new data out there showing that people who have really high ability and know it kind of thrive in a competitive environment where their intelligence is on the line. For the rest of us who are not at the high ends and who don’t have a huge amount of confidence, we perform much better when we are in a environment that tells us that you can get better at this stuff and the goal is not to show how smart you are but to get smarter would eventually say that for the vast majority of people, that a place where you would find a most intelligent thought circulating the room. That is where people will not be so afraid of revealing their inability, so this has been a real focus of my work is to teach people that their brains are more like muscles that get stronger and so you can get a bad score now and it’s not you r destiny and you can improve. It sound like a simple idea, it has a very liberating effect on the intellect so people can sort of have feel like that can take risks without marking themselves as unfaltering limited. People feel like they can engage more because less is on the line and they can always improve, so I have been amazed by the data. For example, in some intervention work that we have done we’ve taught in using some sort of social physiological attitude to change techniques. We have taught people to reconceive of their own intelligence so that they really start to see themselves as capable of becoming smarter, when we do that we look at their grades four months later from the control groups who were not taught that. We see half standard deviation and improvement in their grades in mere four months. So, it’s one idea but it is an idea that has a pretty far reach implication by the way people approach academic task.

EH: Well I think that you just answered the one question that I really want to sneak in personally here. I teach at a minority serving institution and most of the students here are black, it is historically black school in New Orleans and I can hear in my head some of the faculty here saying, “Well this doesn’t apply this because all of our students are black or most of our students are black.”  But what I am hearing you say is that this is a healthy environment for learning regardless of the makeup of the class, is that correct?

JA: Right and Xavier is famous for nurturing the intelligence of people who in other contexts would probably not do to well. Right so everybody holds up Xavier where everyone succeeds and everyone rubs at high levels, so it’s very much aligned in the way we approach that.

EH: Very nice, well are there any last words or any last points that you want to get across before we rap up. I am trying to be considerate of your time here.

JA: Well no that’s OK, please ask more questions.

EH: Well OK, I do and then I will. I would like to hear what is your latest research and maybe you were just referring to there and the kind of the hot of the press stuff? What are you doing these days?

JA: Well, I have done a couple of things lately, I tend to follow my nose and things tend to pop up. One of the things that came up recently is that there was a report in the New York Times following the election of Obama stating that black students test scores rose. It suggested the intriguing possibility that a role model of great saliency and accomplishments could almost have a magical effect on people, so I tried to replicate this and it absolutely didn’t work. You know, were shifting into whether there is a Obama effect or not on black students test taking and intelligence but if there is one where is it and how does it manifest itself? We know that having a role model is very important but is it enough to have one person in a very important position and to just know about them or do you need to engage in their story in some sort of a way? What are the necessary and efficient conditions for being inspired to higher achievement by somebody? That’s a real big interest of mine; another thing that we are finding and I am staring to work on is that it goes beyond race to how do teach people how to be smart. How do you get them to make smart decisions? How do you get them to think like a scientist? Whether or not if they are going into a science, because these are questions that are really being begged by society at this point, we say we need more scientists but to anything American are thinking less and less scientifically as we go along and there has almost been for the last eight years I think sort of a suspicion of science that is somehow on this equal plain with faith. I think the only way that ideas can take hold like that if people aren’t exposed of scientific habits of mind that are relatively early aged. So my colleagues and I, Richard Nesbitt and Nancy Blair, are embarking on a program of how do you teach young children to think like scientist and I think that will, is we can do this, this will perhaps be my biggest contributions during my career. I think it’s something that is sadly lacking in this country and it is not so in other countries. It is true that other countries are staring to knock on our door in terms of science and technology and I think in part that’s because were not teaching science in the right way. Good scientific habits help you make better decisions. For example, lots of people in this country play the lottery; scientists however don’t play the lottery. Why? Because they have some rudimentary understanding of statistics and that for example, the odds of hitting the Powerball jackpot are about the same odd of walking out of your house on a sunny day and getting struck by lightning three times in a row. I mean it’s just staggering that people would ever bother to play the lottery. At the same time they hear about somebody having a bad reaction to a flu shot and therefore they throw away reams of scientific data that indicates that they are safe. So, these have very server implications for this country and if I can play some part, some small part in getting kids turned on to thinking smarter than I have made my contribution and I can die, I can die a happy man.

EH: Well very nice, well thank you so much for speaking to me today. Just like you said about loving Cod Steels work, I have followed your work and I really enjoy it. So thanks for doing it and thank you so much for talking today.

JA: My pleasure.

1 thought on “Conversation #10: Stereotype Threat

  1. Lourdes Rincón

    This was a very interesting interview with much revealing and helpful information, especially on the subject of creating the right environment to obtain more positive results during testing. I listened to the entire conversation and found it to be a great educational tool. Thank you, CAT.

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