Stereotype threat reinterpreted as a regulatory mismatch
This article examined the role of motivations in stereotype threat. It was theorized that a mismatch between an individuals motivational state and the reward structure of the task might contribute to stereotype threat effects. Specifically, if an individual is focused on achieving gains but that task is framed in terms of avoiding losses (i.e., a promotion focus and loss-framed reward structure) or if an individual is focused on avoiding losses but the task is framed in terms of achieving gains (i.e., prevention focus and gain-framed reward structure), then performance might be harmed. Experiment 1 tested this idea with male and female undergraduates (N = 79, 37 men, 42 women) who were given a GRE math test in which the reward structure emphasized either gain (earning 2 points for each correct answer, 0 points for each incorrect answer, and a goal to acquire 36 points) or loss (losing 1 point for each correct response, 3 points for each incorrect response, and a goal to lose no more than 24 points). Women (stereotypically assumed to be bad at math) who received the loss-frame performed significantly better than women who received the gain-frame. There was no significant difference in mens performance across the two frame conditions, but men performed better than women in the gain-framed condition but not the loss-framed condition. It was hypothesized that a fit between motivations and reward-frame (trying to not look like one is failing a stereotypical task and having a loss-avoidant framing) produces cognitive flexibility and enhanced performance. Experiment 2 more directly tested this hypothesis by informing participants (N = 160) that a classification task was typically performed better either by women or by men. In addition, half the participants were randomly assigned to receive either a gain-frame reward structure or a loss-frame reward structure. To successfully complete the classification task, participants needed to switch from using an easier and obvious unidimensional rule to a complex conjunctive rule. When women were told they tended to perform better than men, they showed superior performance to men under the gain-frame. For men who were told they tended to perform worse than women, they tended to perform better under the loss-frame. These findings suggest that motivational states play a role in stereotype threat and that the negative consequences of stereotype threat may be mitigated by providing a fit between motives and reward structure.