Thursday, April 03, 2008

All about stereotype threat

Do read this fantastic article on stereotype threat in the latest issue of Scientific American. It covers a lot of ground: both steretype threat and stereotype lift, cognitive load (as an explanation for the former) and social identity theory (as an explanation of both), and some of the ways of diminishing the nasty effects of stereotype threat (avoidance, deflection, protest). As I said, a fantastic article. Here's an excerpt from the final section:

The first is to adopt a strategy of “social mobility,” which involves individual-level activities that serve to downplay the impact of the group on the self. In effect, this is the kind of strategy that Beilock and her colleagues recommend when they encourage participants to work hard to learn solutions to problems by rote so they will no longer be handicapped by stereotype threat. The limitation of this solution is that it protects the individual by working around the problem but, in the process, leaves the problem itself unresolved. As two of us (Haslam and Reicher) note in a 2006 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, such activities thus involve attempting to cope with the stress of threats to self through a strategy of personal avoidance. This approach may be cognitively sophisticated but politically naive.

A second strategy is one of “social creativity,” which invokes different in-group stereotypes that deflect the impact of belonging to a disadvantaged group. Traditionally, researchers and laypeople alike have tended to think of stereotypes as fixed and invariant representations of social groups that are impervious to change. In fact, however, the large body of evidence reviewed in the mid-1990s by Penelope Oakes and her fellow social identity researchers at the Australian National University suggests that stereotypes—of both ourselves and others—are inherently flexible.

For example, the degree to which psychology students think of themselves as “scientific” or “artistic” has been shown to vary considerably depending on whether they compare themselves with drama students or with physical scientists. In comparison with physical scientists they are more inclined to stereotype themselves as artistic, but in comparison with people who work in the theater they are more inclined to stereotype themselves as scientific. Psychology students should experience stereotype threat if they are asked to perform a scientific task when compared with physicists or an artistic task when compared with artists, but they should experience stereotype lift if asked to perform an artistic task when compared with physicists or a scientific task when compared with artists.

Leaders and other agents of change are thus able to promote changes to in-group stereotypes by altering the dimensions of comparison, the comparative frame of reference or the meaning of particular attributes. There is a sense, however, in which these strategies of social creativity still work within a prevailing consensus rather than doing anything directly to change features of the social world that give rise to a group’s stigmatization and disadvantage. In this respect, they can still be seen as strategies of threat denial rather than threat removal.

A third alternative, then, is to advocate group-based opposition to the status quo through a strategy of social competition that involves engaging in active resistance. Here group members work together to challenge the legitimacy of the conditions (and associated stereotypes) that define them as inferior—trying to change the world that oppresses them rather than their reactions to the existing world. They work to counter the stereotypes that are tools of their repression with stereotypes that are tools of emancipation. This strategy was precisely what activists such as Steve Biko and Emmeline Pankhurst achieved through black consciousness and feminism, respectively. They challenged the legitimacy of those comparisons and stereotypes that defined their groups as inferior and replaced them with expressions of group pride. They were (as one supporter said of Pankhurst) “self-dedicated reshaper[s]of the world.” And the more their opponents invoked stereotypes against them, the more they acted collectively to contradict those stereotypes and reveal their claims to legitimacy as a lie.

To quote from the evidence that Biko gave at his trial in South Africa in 1976: “The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity.”

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Update: Here's one more possible intervention that can help students in vulnerable groups: Test Scores Go Up with Best Friends of Different Race. Link via Swarup.