Stereotypes can affect us in unusual way, researcher says

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, September 4, 2013

BELOIT—You're at a party, having a good time, when you encounter someone who makes you question your confidence. You freeze. You're unable to carry on a conversation as you had done just minutes before.


-- You're a white person who likes basketball. You encounter difficulty in mastering the game's skills, and you think about the fact that black people seem so natural playing the game. You decide this isn't the game for you.

-- You're a woman who likes math, but when you see your advanced math lecture full of men, and your male professor using examples involving only men, you figure the odds are against you. You look elsewhere for a career.

Examples are endless.

“It happens to everyone,” said Claude Steele, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University who will speak at Beloit College on Monday.

The phenomenon is called “stereotype threat,” a term Steele and a colleague coined in 1995.

Their experiments showed that black college students performed worse on standardized tests than white students when the black students' race was emphasized. But when race was not emphasized, black students performed the same or better than white students.

Steele and his colleague concluded that performance suffers if someone believes he or she is being viewed through the lens of a racial stereotype. 

The same goes for gender stereotypes or any other stereotype, Steele said in a telephone interview this week.

The idea could have significance for one of American society's major problems: The test-score gap between minority and white students. It's a problem the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, for example, cites every year as it releases results of state standardized tests.

Local educators have been invited to Monday's lecture, and Steele said he will discuss what teachers can do to avoid or mitigate the stereotype threat.

Steele said groups that are highly conscious of how society might view them—black youths, for example—are most vulnerable.

The website ReducingStereotypeThreat.org cites research that has revealed a variety of vulnerable groups, including Hispanics and poor people, but also whites when confronted with the idea that Asians have superior math skills.

But are Asians superior in math? Are black people inherently better at basketball? Steel says no. He cites the theory that becoming very good at any skill requires about 10,000 hours of practice.

People who seem like prodigies—Steele cites composer Mozart and golfer Tiger Woods—become so good because they began learning their skills at a very early age, Steele said.

If you believe that ability comes from lots of hard work, then you can do more with your life and not feel the stereotype threat, he said.


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