Stereotype threat and performance: How self-stereotypes influence processing by inducing regulatory foci

These studies investigated the possibility that exposure to different types of stereotypes might change one's regulatory focus (Higgins, 1998), thereby altering means by which an individual attempts to solve problems. Specifically, it was suggested that positive stereotypes might induce a promotion focus engendering approach or eagerness strategy, and negative stereotypes might induce a prevention focus encouraging avoidance or vigilance strategy. To test these ideas, Experiment 1 had male and female undergraduates not majoring in psychology complete a proofreading task. Before doing so, they were told that either "psychology students usually do very well on the task, whereas students majoring in other disciplines do badly" (negative self-stereotype) or that "psychology students usually do badly on the task whereas students majoring in other disciplines usually do very well" (positive self-stereotype). The main dependent measure was recall of avoidance and approach behavioral descriptions from the proofread passage. Consistent with predictions, recall of approach items was higher in the positive stereotype condition, and recall of avoidance items was higher in the negative stereotype condition. Experiment 2 looked at the speed and accuracy of women's and men's performance on a verbal ability task that had been described as measuring "verbal skills of men and women" (stereotype threat for men) or "verbal abilities" (control). It was expected that women would perform the task more quickly but less accurately under the positive stereotype (indicating approach means) but that men would perform the task more slowly but with greater accuracy under the stereotype that was negative for them (indicating vigilance means). Results generally confirmed these predictions. In Experiment 3, non-psychology majors were randomly assigned to one of the conditions in Experiment 1 or to a condition in which no stereotype was invoked. Students then completed a task in which they were to quickly and accurately connect numbered dots in three different figures. Performance was fastest in the positive stereotype condition and slowest in the negative stereotype condition. However, accuracy was best in the negative stereotype condition and worst in the positive stereotype condition. Mediational analyses indicated that speed-accuracy tradeoffs could not completely account for these effects. In Experiments 4 and 5, students completed the manipulation from Experiment 1 and then completed tasks designed to measure analytic ability and creativity. Performance was significantly better on the creativity tasks in the positive stereotype conditions but better on the analytic tasks in the negative stereotype conditions. Self-reported eagerness and vigilance strategies partially mediated the effects of stereotype valence on task performance. These data suggest that negative stereotypes can induce a risk-averse, vigilant processing style, manifesting in higher performance accuracy, diminished creativity, and enhanced analytic thinking. Positive stereotypes, however, appear to induce a risky, explorative approach leading to enhanced speed and creativity but diminished analytical ability. More generally, the authors suggest that performance is typically hindered under stereotype threat because performance on tasks that are used in such studies does not rely exclusively on eager or vigilance strategies. Because most tasks require both vigilance and eagerness means for success, stereotype threat can undermine performance when primarily vigilance means are employed under negative stereotypes.

Seibt, B., & Forster, J. (2004). Stereotype threat and performance: How self-stereotypes influence processing by inducing regulatory foci. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 38-56.