Stereotype threat and executive resource depletion: Examining the influence of emotion regulation

This paper examined the role of emotion regulation in stereotype threat. It is proposed that stereotype threat provokes a variety of emotional responses. To regulate (i.e., control) these emotional responses require working memory resources, depriving the individual under threat of the cognitive resources needed for optimal task performance. These ideas were pursued across four experiments. In Experiment 1, female undergraduates were asked to perform a task measuring mathematical aptitude in the presence of two men (stereotype threat) or reflective of problem solving skills in the presence of two other women (control). Participants then completed tasks designed to assess working memory capacity and attention to threat relevant stimuli. For the attention task, half of the women were given a vague description of the task so the task would function as a measure of the accessibility of threat emotions and half were told that it would measure whether they were experiencing anxiety. It was expected that this latter group would try to regulate their responses resulting in lowered attention to threatening stimuli. Results showed that women under stereotype threat showed lower working memory capacity. However, only women under stereotype threat who were given a vague description of the attentional task showed greater attention to threat-relevant stimuli. Women under stereotype threat who were told of the nature of the task showed reduced attention to the threatening stimuli compared with the control condition, suggesting that they were regulating their responses. Experiment 2 focused on varying the strategies used for emotional regulation under stereotype threat. To induce stereotype threat in all participants, experimenters told female undergraduates that they would complete a test measuring mathematical ability. One-third of the participants were given no additional information (stereotype threat alone), one-third were instructed to suppress their feelings and emotions during the experiment (stereotype threat plus suppression), and the remaining third were told to look at the test in an objective, analytical manner so as to depersonalize it (stereotype threat plus reappraisal). Women in the reappraisal condition performed better on tests of working memory capacity and on the actual math test than did women in the other two groups (who did not differ from each other). These results suggest that effective emotional regulation can preserve capacity and ensure successful performance. Experiment 3 showed that instructing participants under stereotype threat that any anxiety they would experience would not harm (and might even help) test performance eliminated performance decrements compared with conditions under which stereotype threat was induced, but anxiety was not mentioned. Experiment 4 extended these findings by including Latino and White undergraduates in a study designed to assess group differences on intelligence tests (stereotype threat for Latinos). Half of the participants were also told that the study would examine the role that anxiety plays in test performance (anxiety mentioned) and half were told that anxiety would not affect or might even improve their test performance (anxiety reappraised). Only Latinos in the anxiety mentioned condition showed reduced attention to threat relevant stimuli, suggesting that they were attempting to suppress (i.e., regulate) anxious emotions. Moreover, these participants performed most poorly on the measure of working memory capacity. Taken together, these studies show that the process of emotional regulation in response to stereotype threat can tax cognitive resources, producing poorer performance under threat.

Johns, M., Inzlicht, M., & Schmader, T. (2008). Stereotype threat and executive resource depletion: Examining the influence of emotion regulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137, 691-705.