Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stereotype effect

Over at Scientific American, this week's Mind Matters column is by Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. In it, she discusses some very interesting research on how a single, 15-minute social-psychological intervention closed almost half of the racial achievement gap. Towards the end, she also addresses the implications of these findings on the gender gap in math achievement.

Theories of stereotype threat suggest that awareness of a negative stereotype about a social group in a particular domain can degrade task performance exhibited by group members. Other studies have shown that when the relevant negative group stereotypes are activated in performance situations, African Americans perform poorly on cognitive tasks reputed to assess intelligence, and women perform at a less-than-optimal level on math problems for which they have been told gender differences exist.

It seems a small stretch, then, that minority students who are aware of negative stereotypes impugning the intelligence of their group might constantly walk around in school settings with the weight of such knowledge on their shoulders. And, if such knowledge prevents these students from devoting attention and effort to their school subjects, performance may suffer.

Cohen's work suggests that one way to reverse this type of threat is to allow students to reaffirm their self-integrity. Having African American students write about qualities that are important to them, which presumably enhances their sense of self-worth and value, appears to buffer minority students against threat and its consequences.