The stereotyped task engagement process: The role of interest and achievement motivation

These experiments assessed the impact of stereotype threat on task interest, a strong predictor of long-term persistence in a given domain. In Experiment 1, high achievement-oriented female undergraduates who had not yet selected an academic major were asked to complete a "computing aptitude assessment tool" that either had (stereotype threat) or had not (control) produced results showing that men are superior to women in mathematics. Some students were given an individual performance goal ("this aptitude tool will really show what you can do") and these students were told either to avoid poor performance (performance-avoidance goal) or to strive for positive performance (performance-approach goal). The remaining students were given either a mastery goal ("working on the [assessment tool] will provide you with an opportunity to really learn and understand the information") or no specific goal. After completing the tool, students were asked to indicate their interest in the task and their interest in learning more about computing. In the control condition, expressed interest was highest when women were given no goal. Under stereotype threat, however, interest was highest under the performance-approach goal and lowest (and statistically equal) in the no goal and performance-avoidance conditions. Results for long-term interest were generally similar but not statistically significant. These results suggest that women operating under stereotype threat and no specific goal instruction might be spontaneously generating performance-avoidance goals associated with lower interest. Experiment 2 used the same procedure as Experiment 1, except a condition was added that did not mention stereotypes and no goals were assigned. Students who varied in achievement motivation completed the assessment tool and described the thoughts they experienced while performing the task. Individuals high in achievement motivation who were subjected to stereotype threat were more likely to spontaneously produce performance-avoidance related thoughts than were individuals low in achievement motivation and in the control condition. In the condition in which stereotypes were not mentioned, individuals high in achievement motivation reported a similar number of thoughts related to performance-avoidance as high achievement motivation individuals in the stereotype threat condition, indicating that stereotypes are activated math-related situations even without explicitly mentioning gender. In Experiment 3, women who were high or low in achievement orientation were randomly assigned to receive a performance-avoidance goal or a performance-approach goal before completing the assessment tool. To induce stereotype threat, all students indicated their gender on a demographic questionnaire before completing the assessment tool. The effectiveness of the goals assigned to students depended on their levels of achievement orientation. High achievement individuals showed higher interest and absorption in the task under performance-approach than under performance-avoidance goals. In contrast, women low in achievement orientation were more likely to show interest and absorption under performance-avoidance goals. These results show that the effects of stereotype threat combine with and influence achievement goal adoption, depending on achievement motivation. Goals, in turn, can then influence interest in the domain.

Smith, J. L., Sansone, C., & White, P. H. (2007). The stereotyped task engagement process: The role of interest and achievement motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 99-114.