Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning

This paper presents three experiments investigating the role of stereotype threat in perceptual learning. Female participants (N = 75) completed a visual task in which they identified a series of Chinese characters among a set of other visual stimuli over a series of trials as quickly as possible. Prior to performing the task, the participants were told either that women perform worse than men in math because they struggle to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information and that the visual task could measure this ability (stereotype threat) or that the visual task assessed individual differences in problem solving (control). In Experiment 1, performance in detecting a Chinese character in a set of stimuli increased in the control condition as the experiment progressed (a typical finding indicating learning). However, performance did not improve across trials for women operating under stereotype threat. Interesting, their speed to detect the Chinese characters increased across trials, suggesting that they were increasingly relying on effortful (but slow) cognitive processes rather than relatively effortless (and fast) automatic processes. In other words, women under stereotype threat were showing reduced performance in spite of increased effort. Experiment 2 involved three groups: i) a control group (as in Experiment 1), ii) a group in which stereotype threat was introduced mid-task (in the same manner as Experiment 1), and iii) a stereotype threat group (as in Experiment 1) with a mid-task self-affirmation intervention. Visual detection improved over trials in the first condition and in the second condition, until the stereotype threat manipulation occurred. Thereafter, additional learning in the second condition was not apparent. Learning was poorest in the third condition and did not improve after the self-affirmation intervention. Experiment 3 showed that learning that occurred in a control condition persisted even when no longer relevant in a subsequent task (i.e., when the appearance of Chinese characters no longer relevant to the task slowed performance). Participants who had previously learned under stereotype threat were unaffected by the presence of these stimuli in a subsequent task. These findings indicate that when a novel task is linked to a negative stereotype, learning in that task can be harmed.

Rydell, R.J., Shiffrin, R.M., Boucher, K.L., Van Loo, K., Rydell, M.T. (2010). Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. PNAS, 107(32), 14042-14047.