The effect of stereotype threat on the solving of quantitative GRE problems: A mere effort interpretation

This paper tests the implications of the mere effort account of stereotype threat, which argues that threat can increase motivation in negatively stereotyped groups while simultaneously harming performance in some circumstances. If dominant responses are activated by stereotype threat and dominant responses are useful in solving problems, then motivation arising from stereotype threat will aid performance. But if dominant responses are incompatible with problem solution, increased motivation can undermine performance. To test these ideas, participants were presented with two types of items from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) quantitative test: (a) solve problems requiring solving an equation, and (b) comparison problems requiring logic and estimation. For most people, the dominant response is to attempt to solve the problems via equations, which would serve to aid performance on solve problems but hinder performance on comparison problems. Thus, increased motivation because of stereotype threat should raise scores on the former but decrease them on the latter items. This prediction was tested in two experiments. In Experiment 1, college students (N = 64, 32 male, 32, female) completed a math test comprised of comparison and solve items from the quantitative section of the GRE. In one condition, participants were told the test has been shown to produce gender differences (stereotype threat), whereas in a second condition they were told that the test has not produced gender differences in performance (control). Results showed, consistent with stereotype threat research, that female participants in the stereotype threat condition performed more poorly overall than did females in the control group. Performance of males did not differ in the two conditions. Additional analyses showed that female and male participants differed in terms of the types of problems they attempted and solved. Women in the stereotype threat condition attempted a larger number of the solve problems than did women in the control condition. In addition, compared with the control condition, females in the stereotype threat condition successfully solved a smaller percentage of the comparison problems. These effects are consistent with the notion that women under stereotype threat were motivated, and attempted to use their dominant response to problem-solve, which hurt performance on comparison items. Experiment 2 involved only female undergraduates (N = 64) assigned either to the stereotype threat or control conditions from Experiment 1. In addition, they were either instructed on the difference between solve and comparison problems and how best to solve them (instruction condition) or received no instructions (control). As in Experiment 1, women in the stereotype threat condition solved a smaller proportion of problems but also attempted to solve more problems than did those in the control condition. Moreover, when no instructions were given, participants in the stereotype threat condition used the solving approach more frequently for comparison problems than participants in the no threat condition. Collectively, these results show that stereotype threat can lead to increased effort, consistent with the mere effort account. However, the effectiveness of greater effort varies depending on the strategies that are optimal for any given problem.

Jamieson, J. P., & Harkins, S. G. (2009). The effect of stereotype threat on the solving of quantitative GRE problems: A mere effort interpretation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35,1301-1314.