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Overreliance on college student samples

Stereotype threat vs real discrimination

Failure to fully account for performance differences

Failure to generalize to real-world settings

Several issues surrounding stereotype threat have been critiqued.

Overreliance on college student samples

Many of the first studies on stereotype threat were conducted with college students, and Whaley (1998) suggested that "research on college populations may be too narrow a base on which to rest social psychological theories of human behavior" (p. 679). However, the literature on stereotype threat is now replete with studies that have drawn from broader and more diverse populations and from many different settings. Stereotype threat effects have been found in samples ranging from children (e.g., Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001; McKown & Weinstein, 2003; Neuville & Croizet, 2007) to the elderly (e.g., Rahhal, Hasher, & Colcombe, 2001) and from students in school classrooms (e.g., Huguet & Régner, 2007; Neuville & Croizet, 2007) to adults in the workplace (e.g., Bergeron, Block, & Echtenkamp, 2006; Roberson, Deitch, Brief, & Block, 2003; von Hippel et al., 2007). Although it is certainly possible that college students might not represent people who differ in age, experience, or other factors, the research on stereotype threat has proved to be highly consistent across populations and contexts.

Stereotype threat vs. real discrimination

 

Whaley (1998) also suggested that stereotype threat research fails to distinguish between perceived threat and experienced discrimination. In response, Steele (1998) emphasized that stereotype threat does not preclude the possibility that expectations of being stereotyped might be rooted in reality. Indeed, a sufficient factor for producing vulnerability to stereotype threat is a history of experiences with being stereotyped and discriminated against so that one might expect unfair treatment when a stereotype is invoked alongside a valued social identity. However, such a history might produce threat even in contexts where risks of discrimination are quite small or even non-existent.  What is crucial is whether the individual believes that his or her actions might be viewed through the lens of a stereotype. In such case, individuals fear that they might be viewed and treated differently because of stereotypical expectations and that their actions might potentially confirm stereotypical beliefs.

Failure to fully account for performance differences

Sackett, Hardison, & Cullen (2004) suggested that some claims about stereotype threat are inaccurate and misleading.  In particular, they point to media accounts implying that stereotype threat can fully account for the persistent gap in performance between minorities and majorities on standardized tests. Stereotype threat cannot account for differences in performance in such tasks, they argue, since the research supporting stereotype threat typically controls for differences in standardized test performance. In Steele and Aronson (1995), for example, stereotype threat effects occurred after statistically equating black and white students' SAT scores. In other words, stereotype threat cannot account for persistent differences on standardized tests since it appears to introduce performance gaps that go beyond existing differences.  

It is correct that SAT scores were statistically equated in the Steele and Aronson (1995) paper and several others in which stereotype threat effects have been reported. Thus, stereotype threat appears to represent performance decrements above and beyond what is typically referred to as the "performance gap." Steele and Aronson (2004), however, acknowledge that persistent racial differences on standardized tests are multiply caused and that stereotype threat is not a "silver-bullet cure for the race gap" (p. 47). It is important to note that many other studies (including Steele & Aronson, Study 2, 1995; see also Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001; Croizet & Claire, 1998; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; McFarland, Lev-Arey, & Ziegert, 2003) have not controlled for pre-existing differences in test scores yet still produce performance decrements when stereotyped identities are made salient. Therefore, current research suggests that stereotype threat may be one of many factors that contribute to  performance differences on standardized tests.

Failure to generalize to real-world settings 

A second criticism of stereotype threat focuses on the generality of the findings: do stereotype threat effects occur in "real-world" situations? Cullen, Hardison, and Sackett (2004) report some evidence using archival data showing that performance gaps do not occur simply among the highest performers (and presumably the most strongly identified) in gender and race groups. A second paper produced similar findings with a different and more direct measure of domain identification (Cullen, Waters, & Sackett, 2006). These authors suggests two reasons why effects consistent with stereotype threat failed to emerge in their data. First, they suggest that stereotype threat is more likely to arise in laboratory settings when minority status or gender is made particularly salient through experimental manipulations and less likely in the absence of such explicit manipulations. Second, they speculate that stereotype threat effects might be overcome in real-world environments with additional effort and motivation. These claims are advanced by Stricker and Ward (2004) who argued that having women report their gender before taking a real, high-stakes AP Calculus exam produced no decrement in performance compared with women who did not report their gender until the end of the test. However, Danaher and Crandall's (2008) re-analysis of these data showed that stereotype threat effects do exist in Stricker and Ward's (2004) data and calculated that collecting identity at the end of testing in one study shrunk sex differences in performance by 33%.

A study by Good, Aronson, and Harder (2008) provides evidence showing that stereotype threat can occur among the highest performers in realistic environments. Women enrolled in college advanced math classes (typical entryway courses for careers in mathematics and science) showed decrements in performance on a calculus test when the test was described as diagnostic of ability. However, assuring women that the same diagnostic test was free of gender-bias reduced stereotype threat. In fact, the women in the non-threat condition outperformed women in the stereotype threat condition and also the men in either testing condition. Interestingly, women and men did not differ in the course grades they earned in the class. Indeed, the lack of sex differences in course grades mirrors the lack of sex differences in test performance in the stereotype threat condition. Moreover, in the non-threat condition course grades significantly underpredicted women's performance on the test. Unfortunately, the stereotype threat condition mirrored the regular test-taking procedures and circumstances of their calculus course. If stereotype threat had been removed from the classroom culture, these women very likely would have earned higher grades, perhaps even higher than their male counterparts.

Although these data indicate that stereotype threat can occur in real-world settings, it is also true that several studies in which external monetary incentives were offered for excellent performance produced less consistent stereotype threat effects (McFarland, Lev-Arey, & Ziegert, 2003; Nguyen, O'Neal, & Ryan, 2003; Ployhart, Ziegert, & McFarland, 2003). However, we are unaware of any experiments that manipulated the presence or size of external incentives in a single study, making the speculation that external incentives cause a reduction in stereotype threat effects tentative.

In addition, more recent research provides clearer evidence that stereotype threat effects can and do occur in real-world environments (e.g., Cole, Matheson, & Anisman, 2007; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2007b; Huguet, & Régner, 2007; Keller, 2002; Keller & Dauenheimer, 2003; Kellow & Jones, 2005; Roberson, Deitch, Brief, & Block, 2003) and that those effects can be attenuated in real-world contexts with various interventions (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Walton & Cohen, 2007).

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