Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

White rabbits can’t dance and other stereotypes (part 2)

July 7th, 2011

His and HersIf you’ve visited this palace of culture before, you’ll have read last Monday’s post on “stereotype threat” (being seen as stereotypically bad at something makes it harder for you to do it well). If you haven’t, go do that so that the rest of this makes sense. I’ll wait.

Everybody back in their chairs? Good. Here are two more ways psychologists have found to counter stereotype threat.

Think about positive role models

Cheryl Taylor and her colleagues did a clever two-part experiment with female university students. In the first part, the students were asked to rate how much various successful women deserved their success (rather than just having been lucky). A month later, the same students participated in a supposedly separate study in which they read a short biography of Hillary Clinton then took a math test. The catch is that before they started, half the students were reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math.

Other parts of this study had shown that reminding women about the sexist stereotype tended to lower their scores on the math test by about 10 points. In the biography-reading group, however, those students who had previously rated Clinton as deserving her success were protected from this effect – their math scores didn’t drop. Meanwhile, those who believed that Clinton was successful due to luck and her husband’s position experienced the usual 10-point score drop. Reading the biography had protected only those women who thought Clinton had earned her success.

So, reminding people of positive role models does help to counter stereotype threat – but only when those role models are seen to deserve their success.

Show that difficulties aren’t stereotype-related

Social belonging (a sense of having positive relationships with other people) is known to affect test scores and health, among other things. Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen theorized that black first-year university students feel less social belonging on campus than do white students and that this could be hurting their grades. So, they decided to try to counter it.

They had a group of first-year students read the results of a survey* that showed that most undergraduates found it hard to “fit in” during their first year of university, but eventually became confident about belonging. The students were then asked to write an essay about how their own experiences reflected those shown in the survey, then were videotaped reading that essay so that other students could benefit from their experiences. The whole thing took about an hour.

The results over the next three years were startling. While the intervention had no effect on the grades of white students, those black students who had participated got better grades every year (compared with black students who had been part of the experiment but had written about different topics) and reported being happier, feeling a greater sense of belonging, and visiting the doctor less often.

So what can I do?

Scott type 222C front panelObviously, you’re not going to start asking people to write essays or press buttons while watching words on a computer screen. Still, I think an understanding of stereotype threat and how to block it can be useful. Remind the people you’re working with that some circumstances are difficult for everyone, not just for them. Mention positive role models in their stereotyped group. Get them talking about their most important values.

typingIn some ways, it all comes down to reminding people of their individuality – that they are more than representatives of some typecast group.

And if we help people counter the effects of stereotype threat, they’ll be less likely to live up to those stereotypes… which might eventually help erase some of them. I’d be happier in a world with fewer harmful stereotypes. I think you would, too.


* The survey results included personal reports by the older students, with comments like this one from a black woman: “Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar. Since I realized that, my experience at [school name] has been almost 100 percent positive.”

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