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Lesser expectations
31 AUGUST 2006

The threat of confirming a negative stereotype can harm school performance.Lesser expectations
Fifty-two years after Brown vs. Board of Education started the racial integration of America's schools, African-American still do worse in school, on average, than whites. Does this reflect inequalities in school resources? Differences in native intelligence? Or could at least part of the disparity result from negative stereotypes about the intelligence of black people?

Research published this week indicates that the burden of stereotypes plays a substantial role in the grade disparity. More important, a 15-minute writing exercise erased a major part of the disparity.

The phenomenon at issue is called "stereotype threat," and it's essentially the stress caused by the fear that your own behavior may confirm a negative stereotype about your group. In school and other situations where people are being evaluated, stereotype threat can cause "an elevated level of stress," says Geoffrey Cohen, professor of psychology of the University of Colorado at Boulder. African American students may worry that doing poorly in school could confirm the racial stereotype that their group lacks intellectual ability, and this stress, if severe, can undermine performance. "It's being in a situation that's uncontrollable to some extent, where the environment places more demands on you than you have the resources to cope with. This is something that can happen to any of us," Cohen said.

For example, when African-Americans were told that a standardized test was going to measure their innate verbal ability, they did far worse than whites, even after controlling for their prior scores on the SAT. But that disparity disappeared when they were told that the test was not relevant to verbal ability.

Graph shows increase in scores for white students vs. black students
Confronting stereotype threat can make a big difference in school performance. Data from "The Power of Social ..." (see bibliography).

To defuse stereotype threat, Cohen and colleagues Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel and Allison Master corralled 243 seventh-graders, and randomly placed them in experimental and control groups. The experimental-group kids were asked to circle one value important to them (such as "religion" or "family") on a questionnaire, and describe in writing a time when they had demonstrated that value. (The control-group kids got a questionnaire that focused on the values held by other people.)

Race and stereotype were not mentioned, Cohen stresses. "The students did not know this was about stereotypes; they thought it was part of a normal classroom assignment. It was a backdoor intervention, designed to ameliorate stress."

Female study participant: "My friends and family are most important to me when I have a difficult situation that needs to be talked about. My friends give me companionship and courage. My family gives me love and understanding."

When Cohen and colleagues tracked student grades for the academic term, they saw that white students were unaffected by the activity, and black students in the control group continued on a downward academic spiral. The African-American students who wrote about their own values, however, did much better. Their Ds and Fs dropped by more than half, "wiping out the achievement gap at the low end," Cohen says. When the term was over, these African-American students had erased 40 percent of the expected grade gap with the white students.

Male study participant: "Well being a great athlete and hitting the books are really the most important things in my life. I'm a great athlete when it comes to sports like basketball and football but when it comes to school I try and try to work as hard as I can to go to college and to make my family proud."

It is written
Even to those who believe in writing, like the key-punch gang at the Why Files, that's a surprising benefit from a brief writing assignment. Cohen offers two tentative explanations for the big benefit. In the school in question, he says, "There are lots of preexisting positive forces that promote learning, achievement. The kids generally want to do well, they have skills, and there are committed teachers and a strong infrastructure. But these are being inhibited, restrained, by this threat, which disproportionately affects minority students. If you can intervene and lift the brake, you enable the positive forces."

Man at blackboard instructs a classroom full of teens
Does the threat of confirming a negative stereotype about the intelligence of black children hold these kids back? Photo: US Census

The intervention also seems to interrupt a negative feedback cycle, Cohen adds, where poor performance increases the stereotype threat, which places a further drag on performance.

Stereotype threat is not just about school, and it can also affect whites. For example, when Garcia tested white men, they jumped higher when the experimenter was white rather than black. Having a black experimenter "primes the stereotype that white men can't jump," Cohen says, which harms their performance.

African American woman sits on steps of US Supreme Court reading the newspaper to her daughter
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision marked a high point in the campaign against segregation in the United States. Photo: Library of Congress

It's hard not to be skeptical about the study, which concerns one grade at one school. But if this quick intervention works more widely, it could have big benefits. It's fast, it's cheap, and it does not seem to harm majority students.

Such a technique could augment other efforts to close the achievement gap, Cohen says. "A lot of time, we think we have to add resources, give teachers more skills. That's important if they are lacking, but we overlook the importance of removing the psychological and social barriers. We need to ask, why hasn't change happened yet, and what barriers can we remove to accelerate it?"

— David Tenenbaum

background photos from Library of Congress, Brown v Board of Education...

• Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention, by Geoffrey Cohen et al, Science, Sept. 1, 2006.
• The Power of Social Psychological Interventions, Timothy D. Wilson, Science, Sept. 1, 2006.

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