Arousal and stereotype threat

Two experiments assessed the role of arousal in accounting for underperformance under stereotype threat. In Experiment 1, male and female students who were highly identified with mathematics were told that they would take a difficult math test. Half the students were told that there were typically no gender differences in performance on the test (no threat condition) whereas the other half were told nothing about the test (stereotype threat condition). After being told about the upcoming test, students either completed an easy task (wrote their name as many times as they could for 20 seconds) or a novel, difficult task (wrote their name backward as many times as they could for 20 seconds). No math test was ever given. Instead, based on the well-established finding that arousal improves performance on easy tasks, but disrupts performance on difficult tasks, it was expected that women should show difference in the number of names they could write based on the presence of stereotype threat and that men should not. Results confirmed these predictions; women in the stereotype threat condition wrote significantly more forward names, but fewer backward names, in the stereotype threat than in the control condition. Men showed no effects of the stereotype threat manipulation. These results suggest that women under stereotype threat experienced increased arousal. Experiment 2 attempted to identify a means for disarming arousal under stereotype threat. Math-identified women completed a math test either in the presence of two other women (no threat) or with two men (stereotype threat) where results were to be reported aloud. Before taking the test, the participants were also shown a "subliminal noise generator" and were told either that the noise produced by the machine would produce no discernable effects or that it might create an increase in arousal, nervousness, and heart rate. Results showed that women in the stereotype threat condition performed more poorly on the math test but only in the condition where they were told that the noise machine would produce no obvious effects. When the women in the stereotype threat condition were provided with a means for attributing their arousal to an external cause (i.e., to the subliminal noise generator), performance was equivalent in the two conditions. Results from these studies indicate that arousal can arise under stereotype threat, but that the effects of arousal can be attenuated if individuals are provided with a means for "explaining away" the arousal they may have experienced in such circumstances.

Ben-Zeev, T., Fein, S., & Inzlicht, M. (2005). Arousal and stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 174-181.