“Stereotype Threat” is another amazing discovery of the social science world, designed to account for the racial disparity we see, for example, in the academic achievement gap between black students and white students. The gap rears its ugly head in high school graduation rates, skill levels, and especially in averages of scores on standardized tests.
Stereotype Threat materialized in psych lab experiments under the direction of Claude Steele. Claude is a Stanford social psychologist (and curiously enough the twin brother of the essayist Shelby Steele). Claude theorized that African-American students, confronted with an achievement test, were held back by the internalized stereotype that whites were more intelligent than blacks.
In his basic experiment, two groups, each with a mixture of “high-achieving” white and black students, were given the same SAT-like test. The first group was instructed that the test was a measure of intelligence—in their opinion, of the researchers—conjuring up a Stereotype Threat. The second group was told that the same test was a simple problem-solving exercise; no Stereotype Threat was perceived.
confronted with an
were held back by the
that whites were
more intelligent than blacks.
According to Mr. Steele and his ethical colleagues, the test scores of the group under Stereotype Threat showed the typical black-white disparity in scores you’d expect to find in such tests. But in the second group, they said the disparity essentially vanished. Published in 1995, their paper has been cited thousands of times and spawned yet another re-education industry. Social scientists eagerly embraced the idea that intellectual performance—in fact, most kinds of performance—could be improved or discouraged by simply altering a couple of environmental factors. Stereotype Threat was shown to be particularly convenient in explaining the gap in math scores between girls and boys.
Replications of Stereotype Threat
almost never been
performed in real-world settings.
Lo and behold, it was in 2004 that another team of researchers noticed that Steele’s findings had been misinterpreted owing to statistical confusion. Here is what happened. The African-American students in the non-threat group had indeed scored better on the test than those in the threat group. But the most exciting finding, the one that had made Steele’s paper famous, was proven to be false. The gap between white and black scores was proportionally the same in both groups. The achievement gap had not been closed by removing the stereotype threat. Imagine that; an unreported falsehood arising out of academic research.
Nonetheless, far too many psychology manuals and less ethical researchers continue to report the original misinterpretation as truth. Replications of Stereotype Threat experiments have almost never been performed in real-world settings. Variations on the original experiment are most often shepherded through in university psych labs, with small, non-representative samples, under the watchful eye of oh-so-sympathetic researchers. In 2014, two researchers finally did the first meta-analysis of the studies of Stereotype Threat and girls’ math scores. When they adjusted for “publication bias,” i.e., the tendency of researchers and journals to publish papers that reach a popular conclusion, they found that the effects of stereotype threat on math scores were statistically null.
In social psychology generally, Stereotype Threat remains too good to dismiss. One renegade psychologist, Lee Jussim of Rutgers, thinks he knows why. “Stereotype Threat,” he wrote last year, “is a great rhetorical tool in the quest for egalitarianism. It is, therefore, professionally risky to challenge ideas that serve egalitarian rhetoric.” ¨
I’ll bet you feel a lot better now… can you smell the BS yet?