Stereotype threat spillover: How coping with threats to social identity affects aggression, eating, decision making, and attention

Four studies examined the phenomenon of stereotype threat spillover: a phenomenon where coping with stereotype confirmation reduces self-regulatory ability, thereby undermining effortful engagement in other, unrelated domains. Study 1 examined whether taking a math test under stereotype threat might lead to subsequent aggression toward a partner due to reduced self-regulatory capability. Female university students (N = 34) who reported being aware of the stereotype of male superiority in math were recruited as participants. Upon arrival at the lab, students were told they would complete two separate tasks a math task they would take individually and a competitive reaction time task with a partner. For the math task, half of the participants were simply told they would complete a math test (stereotype threat) or were told to view the task objectively and to adopt a neutral attitude towards the test (stereotype threat negation). After the math test, participants graded their partners tests and provided comments on their performance. Experimenters then supposedly handed back these comments to the test-taker, except all participants were given false, negative feedback (e.g., told that they had received a low score and that This is a very bad score. I wouldnt be surprised if this is the lowest score in the group). Following this math, partners completed the competitive game in which they were given occasional opportunities to blast their partners with unpleasant noise, indicating before each blast the intended intensity and duration. Results showed that participants in the stereotype threat group were more aggressive in the competitive task (i.e., using longer and more intense sound blasts) compared with participants in the stereotype threat negation group. Study 2 used a similar design as Study 1 except the competitive task was replaced with an opportunity to eat ice cream (a tempting food requiring self-regulatory ability to resist). Female participants (N = 46) again completed a math test under stereotype threat or stereotype threat negation conditions and then participated in a taste test of different ice cream samples. Findings revealed that those in the stereotype threat group ate more ice cream after the math test than those in the stereotype threat negation group. These effects were strongest for women who, based on responses to a previous questionnaire, were most aware of gender stereotypes and concerned about experiencing sexism. Study 3 examined on the consequences of a broad variety of identity threats on self regulation. Undergraduate psychology students (N = 118) completed two tasks a writing task and a judgment task and the order of those tasks was varied. In the writing task, students indicated their gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religion and were asked to vividly remember and write about an occasion when they faced discrimination because of their membership in any one of those categories. The judgment task involved making a financial decision involving two options with differing probabilities and payoffs where one choice was objectively superior. Half of the participants completed the writing task first (identity threat) whereas the other half of participants completed the judgment task first (control). Participants in the identity threat conditions were generally more likely to choose the inferior option, especially when considering a time when they experienced either racial or religious discrimination. Study 4 involved the collection of neural measures of self-regulatory ability, specifically activity in a brain area central to executive control (the anterior cingulate cortex; the ACC). Female undergraduates (N = 29) were randomly assigned to complete a math test either under stereotype threat or stereotype negation instructions. In addition, a set of male undergraduates (N = 13) completed the test. Following the math test, all participants completed a Stroop task requiring a high degree of self-regulatory control. Women in the stereotype threat condition performed most poorly on the Stroop task, whereas women in the stereotype negation condition performed equally with men. Also, women in the stereotype threat condition showed highest neural evidence of vigilance and anxiety, particularly in low-conflict trials (e.g., reading red printed in red letters), reducing performance on a task requiring a high degree of self-regulatory control. Overall, these results show that one consequence of stereotype threat is reduced self-regulatory ability that can affect performance in subsequent tasks.

Inzlicht, M., & Kang, S.K. (2010). Stereotype threat spillover: How coping with threats to social identity affects aggression, eating, decision making, and attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 467-481.

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