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stereotype threat consequences vulnerable situations mechanisms reduce criticisms unresolved issues

Reframing the task

Deemphasizing threatened social identities

Encouraging self-affirmation

Emphasizing high standards with assurances of capability 

Providing role models

Providing external attributions for difficulty

Emphasizing an incremental view of ability

Stereotype threat effects have been demonstrated in many studies using different tests and tasks. However, research has also shown that performance deficits can be reduced or eliminated by several means.  

Reframing the task

One method that has been shown to reduce stereotype threat is to "reframe" or use different language to describe the task or test being used. Stereotype threat arises in situations where task descriptions highlight social identities stereotypically associated with poor performance. Modifying task descriptions so that such stereotypes are not invoked or are disarmed can eliminate stereotype threat.  Stereotype threat based on gender, for example, can be reduced either by ensuring females that a test is gender-fair (e.g., Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999) or by explicitly nullifying the assumed diagnosticity of the test (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Of course, removing the diagnostic nature of a test is unrealistic in regular course examinations or in standardized math testing situations. In such cases, stereotype threat can be reduced by directly addressing the specter of gender-based performance differences within the context of an explicitly diagnostic examination (Good, Aronson & Harder, 2008). Simply addressing the fairness of the test while retaining its diagnostic nature can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation. Specifically, testing procedures could include a brief statement that the test, although diagnostic of underlying mathematics ability, is sex-fair (or race-fair).

Deemphasizing threatened social identities

Another method for reducing stereotype threat is to modify procedures that heighten the salience of stereotyped group memberships. Stricker and Ward (2004), for example, conducting a study for the Educational Testing Service (ETS) provide evidence that simply moving standard demographic inquiries about ethnicity and gender to the end of the test resulted in significantly higher performance for women taking the AP calculus test (see Danaher & Crandall, 2008).  Though these effects were statistically modest, these effects could be substantial and significant when generalized to the population of test-takers. If the ETS were to implement this simple change in testing procedures, it is estimated that an additional 4,700 female students annually would receive Advanced Placement credit in calculus (see Danaher & Crandall, 2008).

Encouraging individuals to think of themselves in ways that reduce the salience of a threatened identity can also attenuate stereotype threat effects. Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, and Mitchell (2004), for example, showed that women encouraged to think of themselves in terms of their valued and unique characteristics were less likely to experience stereotype threat in mathematics. Rydell, McConnell, & Beilock (in press) showed that contextual cues reminding female undergraduates of their status as college students (a group that is expected to do well at math) eliminates gender-based stereotype threat. Encouraging individuals to think of characteristics that are shared by ingroup and outgoup members, particularly characteristics in the threatened domain (Rosenthal, Crisp, & Suen, 2007), also appears to preclude the development of stereotype threat in conditions that normally produce it (Rosenthal & Crisp, 2006). Gresky, Ten Eyck, Lord, and McIntyre (2005) used a method that increased the sense of self-complexity by prompting women to make self-concept maps that either had few nodes (reflecting the person's "most basic or fundamentally important characteristic") or many nodes (reflecting "a complete description" of the person). Compared with individuals who did not make self-concept maps or those who made simple maps, only women who made complex self-concept maps were unaffected by a stereotype threat manipulation involving math. Moreover, women who were highly identified with math performed as well as men if they had asserted complex self-representations. So, it appears that interventions that encourage individuals to consider themselves as complex and multi-faceted can reduce vulnerability to stereotype threat. 

Of course, all people have multiple identities, and the degree that a social identity is highlighted for which there exists a stereotype in a domain, the higher the vulnerability to stereotype threat.  To demonstrate how to combat this, McGlone and Aronson (2006) varied social identity salience by having students complete questionnaires that focused on different social identities. Differences in men's and women's performance on a gender-linked task were greatest when the questionnaires focused on their sex and smaller when they inquired about other social identities. Therefore, highlighting social identities that are not linked to underperformance in a domain can attenuate stereotype threat.  Another interesting example of this phenomenon comes from recent research involving individuals with biracial identities (Shih, Bonam, Sanchez, & Peck, 2007). This work shows that individuals with biracial identities are more likely to believe that race is socially constructed, and these individuals are also less likely to show performance decrements under conditions that usually produce stereotype threat. Moreover, individuals who were induced to disagree with the notion that race is socially constructed (and more likely to agree that race is rooted in biology) were most likely to show stereotype threat effects in performance.

Though using different specific techniques, these studies all use methods that reduce the salience of identities that are tied to poor performance in a domain. Emphasizing the idiosyncratic valued characteristics, characteristics shared with other groups, other identities, or complex identities all appear to reduce the salience of a threatened identity. Reducing the salience of a threatened identity appears to serve a protective function, supporting continued high performance for those individuals already identify with the domain in question. 

Encouraging self-affirmation

A general means for protecting the self from perceived threats and the consequences of failure is to allow people to affirm their self-worth. This can be done by encouraging people to think about their characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important (Schimel, Arndt, Banko, & Cook, 2004). Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, and Hart (2004), for example, showed that Whites who were given the opportunity to affirm their commitment to being nonracist were less likely to respond in a stereotypic fashion to an implicit measure of racial associations that had been described as indicative of racial bias. Martens, Johns, Greenberg, and Schimel (2006) provided evidence that encouraging women to self-affirm eliminated performance decrements that typically arise when stereotypes about gender differences in mathematics and spatial ability are invoked. Moreover, these effects are not limited to the laboratory. Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006) described two field studies in which seventh grade students at racially-diverse schools were randomly assigned to self-affirm or not to self-affirm as part of a regular classroom exercise. For students who self-affirmed, they were asked to indicate values that were important to them and to write a brief essay indicating why those values were important. For students who did not self-affirm, they indicated their least important values and wrote an essay why those values might be important to others. Although the intervention took only 15 minutes, the effects on academic performance during the semester were dramatic. As reflected in their end-of-semester GPAs, African-American students who had been led to self-affirm performed .3 grade points better during the semester than those who had not. Moreover, African-Americans who self-affirmed showed lower accessibility of racial stereotypes on a word fragment completion task. These results cannot be explained in terms of teacher expectancies since self-affirmation was manipulated within classes (i.e., some students affirmed whereas others did not in the same class) and teachers were unaware which students had affirmed.  European-American students showed no effects of affirmation. The salutatory consequences of self-affirmation appears to arise because self-affirmation alleviates psychological threat imposed by fear of confirming stereotypes of poor performance. 

Emphasizing high standards with assurances about capability for meeting them

In situations involving teaching and mentoring, the nature of the feedback provided regarding performance has been shown to affect perceived bias, student motivation, and domain identification. The effectiveness of critical feedback, particularly on tasks that involve potential confirmation of group stereotypes (e.g., when an outgroup member provides an evaluation involving a stereotype-relevant task), varies as a function of the signals that are sent in the framing of the feedback. Constructive feedback appears most effective when it communicates high standards for performance but also assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999). Such feedback reduces perceived evaluator bias, increases motivation, and preserves domain-identification. High standards and assurances of capability appear to signal that students will not be judged stereotypically and that their abilities and “belonging” are assumed rather than questioned.

Providing role models

Thoughts about outgroup members whose performance is superior in a domain can interfere with performance.  Huguet & Rgner (2007), for example, showed that girls' performance on a math test in a mixed-sex environment was negatively related to their thoughts about specific men who perform well in mathematics. However, providing role models demonstrating proficiency in a domain can reduce or even eliminate stereotype threat effects (Blanton, Crocker, & Miller, 2000). Marx & Roman (2002; see also Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005) showed that women performed more poorly than men (and showed lower state self-esteem) when a math test was administered by a man but equivalently when the test was administered by a woman with high competence in math. They also showed that these effects were due to the perceived competence, and not just the gender, of the experimenter. Marx and Goff (2005) varied the race of a test administrator and showed that Black individuals were less aware of stereotype threat and less affected by it in terms of their test performance when the administrator was also Black. Moreover, McIntyre and his colleagues (McIntyre, Lord, Gresky, Ten Eyck, Frye, & Bond Jr., 2005; McIntyre, Paulson, & Lord, 2003) showed that even reading essays about successful women can alleviate performance deficits under stereotype threat. Some intriguing evidence shows that a focus on Barack Obama can eliminated typical stereotype threat effects, although these results occurred only at times when Obama's successes were particularly obvious and received positive media attention (Aronson, Jannone, McGlone, & Johnson-Campbell, in press; Marx, Ko, & Friedman, in press).   

Their evidence suggests that providing even a single role model that challenges stereotypic assumptions can eliminate performance decrements under stereotype threat.

Providing external attributions for difficulty

One reason that stereotype threat harms performance is because anxiety and associated thoughts distract threatened individuals from focusing on the task at hand. Several studies have shown that stereotype threat can be diminished by providing individuals with explanations regarding why anxiety and distraction are occurring that do not implicate the self or validate the stereotype. Ben-Zeev, Fein, and Inzlicht (2005) provided proof of this principle by telling some women who were to take a math test in the presence of men that they would be exposed to a "subliminal noise generator" that might increase arousal, nervousness, and heart rate. Women who were given this means to explain the arousal produced by stereotype threat performed as well as men, in contrast to women who were not provided with an external attribution to account for their anxiety. A more practical example illustrating benefits of external attribution is offered by Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht (2003). These researchers had mentors emphasize to young students that the transition to middle school is often quite difficult and that challenges can typically be overcome with time. Encouraging students to attribute struggle to an external, temporary cause eliminated typical gender differences in math performance. Finally, some research has examined the effects of blatantly identifying and disarming the anxiety that arises from stereotype threat. Johns, Schmader, and Martens (2005), for example, taught students about the possible effects of stereotype threat before they took a math test. Students were told, "it's important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test." This instruction eliminated stereotype threat effects in women's math performance. Another study (Johns, Inzlict, & Schmader, 2008) showed that telling individuals under stereotype threat that their performance will not be hindered and might even be improved by the anxious feelings they might be experiencing eliminated the performance decrements associated with stereotype threat. These studies indicate that providing individuals with an external attributions or effective strategies for regulating anxiety and arousal can disarm stereotype threat.

Emphasizing an incremental view of intelligence

Beliefs about the nature of ability influences a host of variables including motivation and achievement in the face of challenge or difficulty. Some individuals tend to believe that intelligence is fixed, not changing over time or across contexts (an “entity theory”). Because they believe that ability is fixed, entity theorists are highly concerned with messages and outcomes that supposedly reflect their "true" abilities (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Dweck & Sorich, 1999). When facing challenges, entity theorists tend to demonstrate lowered focus and task avoidance. Others tend to view intelligence as a quality that can be developed and that it changes across contexts or over time (an “incremental theory”). Incremental theorists tend to be more focused on improving rather than proving ability to themselves or others (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). When facing challenge, incremental theorists are likely to increase effort to further learning and to overcome obstacles (Dweck & Sorich, 1999; Mueller & Dweck 1998). Although many studies have treated implicit theories of ability as individual difference variables, studies have shown that these beliefs themselves can be altered (at least on a short-term basis) by modifying how abilities are described and the specific nature of praise (e.g., by praising effort rather than ability).

Research has shown that individuals with an entity orientation (either temporarily or chronically) are more likely to experience (Sawyer & Hollis-Sawyer, 2005) and to be affected behaviorally by stereotype threat (Goff, Steele, & Davies, 2008), but that, conversely, an incremental view can reduce stereotype threat. Aronson, Fried, and Good (2002) had undergraduates write a letter of encouragement to a younger student who was experiencing academic struggles. Black students who were encouraged to view intelligence as malleable, "like a muscle" that can grow with work and effort, were more likely to indicate greater enjoyment and valuing of education, and they received higher grades that semester. Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht (2003) showed similar effects with 7th grade students who received mentoring from college students. Mentoring emphasizing expandable intelligence and external attributions for difficulty produced higher reading scores and eliminated gender differences in mathematics performance. In addition, a recent study that experimentally manipulated the entity and incremental messages in the learning environment showed similar findings (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2007b). In this study, students were randomly assigned to one of two learning environments in which they watched an educational video that taught new math concepts from either an entity or an incremental perspective. They then solved math problems under either stereotype threat or non-threat conditions. Results showed that when females learned the new math concepts with an entity perspective, they performed less well on the math test in the stereotype threat condition than in the non-threat condition. However, when they learned the new math concepts portrayed from an incremental perspective, there were no differences between the stereotype threat and the non-threat conditions on the math test.

Moreover, encouraging an entity theory even appears to harm performance. For instance, attributing gender differences in mathematics to genetics reduced performance of women on a math test compared with conditions in which differences were explained in terms of experience (Dar-Nimrod & Heine, 2006; see also Shih, Bonam, Sanchez, & Peck, 2007) or effort (Thoman, White, Yamawaki, & Koishi, 2008). In other words, the concern with confirming abilities believed to be fixed or biologically-determined can interfere with one's capability to perform well.

These studies suggest that stereotype threat can be reduced or even eliminated if an incremental view of ability is emphasized. Doing so involves emphasizing the importance of effort and motivation in performance and de-emphasizing inherent "talent" or "genius." Individuals who are encouraged to think in incremental terms will tend to react more effectively to challenge and are less likely to fear confirming negative stereotypes of their group.

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