Regulating the Anxiety of Stereotype Threat

In this chapter, we focus on stereotype threat and its regulation. Stereotype threat is an emotional experience that is imposed on individuals by virtue of their gender, ethnicity, and other identity categories.

Key Points

  • Stereotype Threat is an anxiety that individuals experience when they are working on a task that their social group is believed to be deficient at.
  • Women experience stereotype threat in Math, African Americans experience stereotype threat in academics, Caucasian athletes experience stereotype threat in athletics.
  • Teaching students about stereotype threat helps them to regulate the anxiety they experience. Teaching students to accept the anxiety as a normal part of the testing experience helps them regulate anxiety during tests.

Some Theory...

Stereotype Threat Among Caucasian Students and African American Students in Athletics

  • In a study conducted by Stone et al. (1999), two groups of white students completed a golf task. One group was told that the task measured "natural athletic ability", while the other group was told nothing.
  • Students who were told that the task measured natural ability did worse than students who were told nothing.
  • When commenting on the result of the experiment, Steele (2011) argued that the discrepancy in performance was due top stereotype threat. Because there is a stereotype that Caucasians underperform other races in natural athletic skills, white students who were told that the golf task measured ability experienced a higher anxiety that interfered with their performance
  • This was an extra pressure they had to deal with during the golfing task, for no other reason than that they were white. It hung over them as a threat in the air, implying that one false move could get them judged and treated as a white kid with no natural athletic ability.
    Claude Steele in Whistling Vivaldi
  • For African American students, the group of students who were told that the task measured natural athletic ability performed similarly to the group of students who were told nothing. However, when African American students were told that the task measured "sports strategic intelligence", their performance significantly dropped in comparison to Caucasian students.
  • Because of the negative stereotype about African Americans underperforming other races in intellectual abilities, the group of African American students who were told that the golfing task measured their intelligence experienced a higher anxiety that interfered with their performance. Link to the study

Stereotype Threat Among Women in Math

  • Two groups of women were asked to complete a difficult Math test.
  • In order to test whether the removal of stereotype threat would positively affect their performance, women in one group were told that this particular test does not reflect gender differences and women always do as good as men.
  • The group of women who were told nothing underperformed equally skilled men on the test. However, the women who were told that the test does not reflect gender differences performed as well as equally skilled men.
  • Removing the threat of stereotype confirmation that normally hangs over the heads of women doing difficult math, dramatically improved their performance.
    Claude Steele in Whistling Vivaldi

Regulating the Anxiety of Stereotype Threat

  • A study conducted by Johns et al. (2008) found that subjects under stereotype threat spontaneously resort to suppressing their anxiety.
  • The suppression of the anxiety of stereotype threat consumes cognitive resources like working memory. This consumption of cognitive resources makes fewer resources available to the task itself, which leads subjects to underperform. Link to the study
  • Johns et al. (2008) suggested regulating the anxiety of stereotype threat through reappraisal.
    • One form of reappraisal is by telling subjects that the anxiety experienced during the task is a normal process, anyone performing a task is bound to experience some level of anxiety.
    • Another form of reappraisal is by teaching subjects about stereotype threat, this will lead subjects to realize that the anxiety they are experiencing is not caused by them but by the stereotypes in the society where they live.

Practical Suggestions

  • Be mindful of the stereotypes that are being circulated in the classroom, especially the ones that relate to intellectual and athletic performance.
  • When stereotypes are being circulated, consider it a teachable moment and facilitate a developmentally appropriate critical dialogue about stereotypes. Make sure that the classroom environment is safe and inclusive for such a dialogue to take place.
  • Remind students that anxiety is a normal part of any performance, as long as the anxiety is moderate and not crippling.
  • Teach about stereotype threat and its effect on performance and have students identify experiences where they have felt under stereotype threat.

Review

References

Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do (issues of our time). WW Norton & Company.