Minority groups such as women, African Americans, and those from low socio-economic status have been shown to be vulnerable to the risk of confirming, as self-characteristics, a negative stereotype about one’s group, which is known as stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995).
Put differently, those who are members of stigmatized groups are aware of negative stereotypes about their group and that awareness as well as fear of showing that they themselves validate these stereotypes, can cause performance deficits. Presently, the effect of confirming negative self-relevant stereotypes within stigmatized groups has become a widely discussed issue within academic settings.
Interventions have been introduced to reduce the risk of individuals confirming these stereotypes. These interventions focus on mentoring students on stereotype threat, intelligence malleability awareness, teaching mindfulness about discrimination, blurring intergroup differences, and individuation. Literature suggests a promising approach to reducing this problem in stigmatized targets is provided by intervention through individuation, which uses the disclosure of personal information to make a person more identifiable (Maslach et al., 1985), thus placing focus on their positive traits and reducing the effects of the stereotype threat.
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A landmark study on stereotype threat done by Steele and Aronson (1995) examined the role of activating a negative stereotype plays on achievement. The primary study tested 117 Black and White Stamford undergraduates. Using a 2×3 factorial design, the experimenters wanted to test if there was performance differences between the Black and White students and the type of test used: diagnostic, non-diagnostic or non-diagnostic with a challenge. Findings suggested that Black participants performed worse when the test was presented as a means to measure ability but their performance matched those of the White participants when the test was shown to not reflect ability.
Follow-up studies were done to test reliability of interaction between the race and diagnostic testing conditions. The final study tested 24 Black students (6 male, 18 female) and 23 White students (11 male, 12 female) using a 2×2 factorial design to find the interaction between race and the recording of the participant’s ethnicity on a preliminary questionnaire. Results showed that Black participants experienced stereotype threat when asked about their ethnicity even though the test administered was not diagnostic. Black participants showed that the presentation of the test as diagnostic aroused stereotype threat and negatively affected their accuracy and the number of items on the test completed.
The most significant evidence on stereotype threat found by Steele & Aronson (1995) was that there is a heightened level of anxiety for members of minority groups when they are at risk for stereotype threat shown when an intellectual test is presented as diagnostic and when their ethnicity is made salient before testing.
Findings of the previous study (Steele & Aronson, 1995) have been replicated and expanded on through works of numerous researchers. Work by Schmader (2003) focused on the effect of stereotype threat on working memory capacity. Researchers used 59 undergraduate psychology students (31 male, 28 female) and randomly assigned them in a 2×2 factorial design (male or female x stereotype threat or control condition).
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A working memory test, titled the Operation-Span Task (Turner & Engle, 1989) was used to measure participant’s memory after they were given mathematical equations to solve. In the stereotype threat condition, participants were told by the researcher that result differences may be related to the gender differences of math ability.
Results revealed that there were significant main effects of gender and stereotype threat. Schmader (2003) found that women in the stereotype threat condition did worse than men and the women in the control condition on the memory task, suggesting that stereotype threat reduces women’s working memory capacity.
The second experiment examined the effect of stereotype threat activation and test description on working memory capacity of Latino students. Ethnicity of students was recorded prior to the testing and in the stereotype threat condition, students were put in the diagnostic test condition, in which they were told that the specific test they were taking was predictive of their intelligence. Results showed that salience of race prior to testing evoked much higher anxiety levels in Latino participants than White participants. Results also indicated that Latinos in the diagnostic test condition had less memory capacity than the White participants, therefore exhibiting that stereotype threat taxes working memory capacity on minority groups. (Schmader, 2003).
Further research done by Schmader et al. (2008) continued work on stereotype threat and developed a model that addresses specific reasons why minorities underperform due to stereotype threat. The integrated process model addresses how stereotype threat stresses the individual physiologically and cognitively, in turn causing performance deficits. Stereotype threat can decrease performance because ones’ physiological stress response is increased, efforts to push out stereotypical thoughts are increased, and self-awareness of one’s own abilities is increased. These are all shown to be distractions when performing cognitive tasks. The literature explained how this phenomenon called stereotype threat is influenced by many factors and although they can all simultaneously affect performance, these factors also can work independently to impair ones performance (Schmader et al., 2008).
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Literature reviewed by Shapiro & Neuberg (2007) led to the acknowledgment and examination of different types of stereotype threat. The Multi-Threat Framework addressed six core stereotype threats, the source of each threat (individual, out-group members and in-group members), and the target of each threat (individual or the group).
It was explained that stigmatized individuals experience group-concept threat, which is the fear of seeing ones’ group as possessing the negative stereotypic threat. The individual also experiences own-reputation threat (out-group), understood as the fear of negative stereotypic characterization placed on the individual by the out-group. Own-reputation threat (in-group) is described as the fear that ones own behavior will confirm the negative stereotypes about the group because the individual believes the stereotypes are true (Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007).
Conversely, Group-reputation threat (out-group), own-reputation threat (in-group) and group-reputation threat (in-group) all target the group as opposed to the individual. The first and third threats discuss how individuals fear reinforcing negative stereotypes in the eyes of the out-group as well as their group (in-group).
Lastly, own-reputation threat (in-group) involves the fear of being judged or rejected by one’s in-group (Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007).
Although there is no evidence directly supporting The Multi-Threat Framework, it is suggested that they are all possible types of stereotype threat and depending on the strength of the individual’s identification with the minority group; these threats impact the individual in every day situations and more importantly, these threats continue to negatively impact the image and identity of minority group.
Similar to the work of Shapiro & Neuberg (2007) on types of stereotype threat and specifically own-reputation threat (in-group), Cohen & Garcia (2005) addressed collective threat, which was explained as the ones fear of reinforcing and confirming stereotypes of ones group. It was tested whether collective threat is considered threatening to negatively stereotyped students in academic settings. Sixty-three Black undergraduates (44 female, 19 male) were tested within two conditions: collective threat and no collective threat, which was manipulated by the experimenter stating that the study aimed to address factors that affect performance. Participants were told that questions were quite difficult and their scores were going to be evaluated so they should extend their greatest effort. In the no threat condition, participants were told nothing prior to the test. Experimenters also collected scores on Harter’s (1998) Global Self-Worth Scale as a measure of the students’ self-esteem, items on a scale assessing the students level of collective threat, level of perceived discrimination, level of racial identification (Cohen & Garcia, 2005), the students’ grade point average and scores on items from a standardized test. Cohen & Garcia (2005) found that collective threat is considered threatening in an academic setting and their concern of reinforcing stereotypes of their minority group also threatens their self-esteem regardless of their level of racial identification.
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One of the numerous factors that has been said to affect the activation of stereotype threat in academic settings is socioeconomic status (SES).
Children who are living in poverty tend to perform worse academically than those who are of higher SES (Caldas & Bankston, 1997) and may significantly gain academically from means to buffer the effects of this relationship. Malecki & Demaray (2006) examined how a students SES can impact their academic performance and how social support (supportive behaviors from individuals in their social network such as; parents, teachers, and friends (Malecki & Demarary, 2002)) can potentially act as a buffer. Using 164 middle school students who were mainly 62.3% Hispanic, the experimenters measured the students’ perception of their own social support (CASSS; Malecki et al., 2000) and collected the participants SES and school grades. Malecki & Demaray (2006) found that the relationship between SES and social support was stronger within the lower SES group and also found a significant interaction between high parental and classmate support and students school grades, while in the higher SES group, level of support was not a predictor of GPA.
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A social factor that may contribute to impairment of academic performance is the state of belonging uncertainty, which is explained as the uncertainty of quality of social bonds and this how it makes an individual more sensitive to issues of social belonging (Walton, 2007).
In this study, 35 Black and 34 White undergraduates completed a 17-item inventory that assessed their sense of social fit in the department, their sense of social in fit compared with others, their skill level in the field and their potential to succeed in the computer science department. Using a 2×2 factorial design (Race x condition) were randomly assigned in two conditions: one condition asked participants to generate a list of two friends who would fit well in the computer science department and the other condition asked to generate a list of eight friends. It was found that only Black students had a lower sense of fit after generating eight friends as opposed to generating two friends and Black students showed lower report in sense of fit and potential in the field (Walton, 2007).
These findings suggest that minority group members show greater uncertainty about quality of social bonds in academic achievement because of the numerous negative stereotypes associated with minorities and academia.
Alvidrez & Weinstein (1999) extended on factors that activate stereotype threat and explored the relationship between teacher’s perceptions of students and their later academic achievement. In a longitudinal study, one hundred and ten participants were recruited and teachers rated participants at both 4 years of age and 18 years of age with a 100 item California Child Q-Set which rated ability, intelligence and students’ social, personality and cognitive characteristics (CCQS; Block & Block, 1980).
Participants SES, gender, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and Intelligence Quotient Test scores were also obtained. Findings of Alvidrez & Weinstein (1999) suggested that teacher perceptions can serve as predictors on later student achievement. Results found that teachers judged ability of students with lower SES more negatively than what their IQ scores would later predict. There were no relationships between gender or ethnicity and teacher judgments. These results can imply that the teacher’s perception that students in a lower SES show less potential and ability due to that specific factor, may unconsciously influence their behavior and relationships with students as well as their expectations of the students which thus may impact students’ diligence and success throughout their academic careers.
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Recent works (Johns, et al., 2005; Good et al, 2003; Rosenthal & Crisp, 2006; Langer et al., 1985) have introduced numerous types if interventions that can inhibit the various effects of stereotype threat and improve the ability and achievement of those individuals who are most vulnerable to this social and academic phenomenon.
Johns, Schmader, and Martens (2005) examined the use of mentoring as an intervention to improve math performance in women. Using a 2 x 3 factorial design (gender x test description), 75 female and 42 male Caucasian undergraduate students who were enrolled in an Introduction to Statistic course, were administered a test that was either described as a problem-solving task or a math test. In the third condition, participants were involved in a teaching-intervention condition that told participants they were taking a math test but were also made aware how stereotype threat can interfere with women’s math performance (Johns et al., 2005).
Results showed that women performed worse then men when they told the test was a diagnostic math test. Results of women who were in the teaching-intervention condition did not show this. Findings of Johns et al. (2005) indicated there was a significant improvement of the women’s performance when the mere knowledge of stereotype threat was introduced and thus attributed performance to an external arousal.
Extended research by Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht (2003) aims to identify interventions that reduce students’ vulnerability to stereotype threat and improve standardized test scores. It is suggested that mentoring students by viewing performance on standardized tests in different ways will affect their scores. Through random assignment, 138 7th graders (55% male and 45 % female; 67% Hispanics, 13% Blacks, and 20% Whites) participated in this study using a 2X4 factorial design, which tested gender and four conditions: Incremental condition, attribution condition, use of both the incremental and attribution conditions, and the control group condition (Johns et al., 2003).
For the entire year, participants were engaged in a specific condition and their math scores from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test taken from the beginning and end of the year were compared. The message in the first condition conveyed that intelligence is malleable and were taught the expandable nature of intelligence, the second condition performance was attributed to the external factor that due to the nature of the change in their environment and expectations that are involved with entering middle school, it is normal to at first experience difficulties. The third condition applied a combination of both messages in the mentoring program. Last, the fourth was a control condition that taught an anti-drug message. Good et al’s. (2003) results showed that males outperformed females when they participated in the control condition but the gender gap in math performance was diminished in all three conditions of tested interventions.
The theory of the Categorization Model (Rosenthal & Crisp, 2006) focuses on blurring intergroup boundaries as a means to combat stereotype threat. Thirty-three female participants were randomly placed in either the base-line the overlap condition. The overlap condition tested the categorization method by asking participants to list characteristics that were similar across two different groups (i.e. minority group and majority group).
Results showed a higher preference to stereotypically-female careers in the baseline condition but in the overlap condition, women showed more preference towards the less stereotypically female careers and had lessened negative feelings about their stigmatized group.
Another means of reducing minorities vulnerability to stereotype threat is through teaching active distinction making (i.e. mindfulness increasing our knowledge of distinctions of minority groups and by engaging in a more active role in perceiving people )(Langer, Bushner, & Chanowitz, 1985).
Forty seven 6th graders were either placed in a high or low mindfulness condition which asked either high or low levels of comprehension and problem solving pertaining to issues that handicapped individuals face. Results showed that those in the high mindfulness condition decreased of their stereotypes on the handicapped and the higher understanding of the stereotyped group may lead to the participants being less likely to discriminate inappropriately in the future. Mindfulness prevents one characteristic from dominating the entire characterization of the individual and this intervention may lead to fewer misunderstandings about minority groups thus decreasing prejudice (Langer et al., 1985).
Ambady et al. (2002) understood the importance of recognizing the threat and the anxiety it places on an individual’s performance and argued that focusing participants’ attention on their unique and individual traits will lower the activation of stereotype threat. It has been argued that the effect of individuation can be influenced by self-affirmation which is the “broader self-concept or of an equally important yet different, aspect of the self concept.” (Steele, 1998) Perhaps just the acknowledgement of positive personal attributes serves as a mental distraction from stereotype threat. Although self-affirmation effects can be somewhat eliminated through introducing more negative traits than positive to the participant (Ambady), a larger question is raised on mental distraction and whether or not individuation is eliminating stereotype threat or just leading the individual to temporarily inhibit activation of stereotype threat. Limitations to the individuation intervention is that in a way supporting the idea that one can improve their performance and lower the activation of stereotype threat if they completely ignore their membership within their group.
Stereotype threat is present in all stages of life but what I am most concerned about is its effect on academic achievement of minority groups such as ethnic minorities, females and those of low socioeconomic status. It is important to eliminate or at least reduce the effects of stereotype threat because if people do not realize that this is a factor that lowers their ability to achieve this most likely will continue on and impact how far they go in their academic career This plays a role in their type of job and in turn their quality of life.
In my research, my primary objective is to build upon previous findings on the individuation strategy as a means to effectively reduce effects of stereotype threat within different minority groups. In order to further investigate the validity of individuation as an intervention in academic settings college students who are considered to be stigmatized targets, participants will be introduced to positive and personal traits before taking an intellectual test. I aim to investigate the differences of performance of minority groups (i.e. race and/or socio-economic status) and majority groups and the impact on their performance when using applying the individuation intervention. My research aims to further investigate the benefits of teaching individuation through interventions in academic settings by placing focus on other identifying traits of the individual, so they can feel differentiated from the negative stereotypes of their group. Through minimizing the acknowledgement of negative characteristics, stereotype threat may be effectively combated, thus leading to enhancement of stigmatized student’s academic performance. My future study will have participants disclose positive and unique traits before taking an intellectual test. I aim to investigate the differences of performance of minority groups and the impact on their performance when using the individuation intervention. I want to establish that this intervention can permanently inhibit stereotype threat activation. To further investigate the success of individuation intervention, further research can be performed by not only placing focus on unique aspects of the individual but by placing focus on positive aspects of the stigmatized group and perhaps aiding the individuals to see their membership to the group as a positive aspect of the self.
Goals my research will aim for are to not only show that individuation can be used as a beneficial intervention but perhaps to further investigate whether individuation can be used with placing focus on positive aspects of the individual as well as the stigmatized group that they belong to. The current study intends to emphasize the importance of uncovering more practical strategies to aid stigmatized targets excel academically based on their own individual capabilities and not be hindered by the risk of stereotype threat.