Imagine That

White men can’t jump

Laura Mann

Laura Mann

There are lots of reasons why people don’t do well on IQ tests, many of which have little to do with intelligence. Maybe the test-taker is stressed about something unrelated to the test, or perhaps their test-taking skills aren’t up to scratch. Socioeconomic and racial factors also play into IQ scores, but when results are adjusted for socioeconomic differences, the scores aren’t so different across races.

However, in the 1990s, researchers noticed another major stumbling block in the race for higher IQ scores. They called it “stereotype threat” — the idea that the stereotypes we hold about ourselves, especially regarding our own race and gender, influence how well we do certain tasks.

Stereotype threat is a model that breaks down why some words can influence test scores dramatically. 

The first researchers on stereotype threat, Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, had a group of African-American and European-American students take a part of the GRE test, a difficult exam required to get into graduate school. They divided the students into three equally racially-mixed groups. Each group was given the same test.

The first group was told that they were taking a test that measured intelligence. The second group was told that they were simply taking part in an experiment, and their results on the test didn’t determine the individual’s intelligence. The third group was told that their results didn’t determine intelligence, but they were warned that the test was difficult.

The results were shocking: African-American students in the first and third groups, where the test was precluded by words like “intelligence” and “difficult,” scored far below their Caucasian counterparts. In fact, in the second group, which wasn’t told anything about intelligence level or test difficulty, African-American and Caucasian students had pretty much equal scores.

Stereotypes can call imagination

It appears the students’ own perceptions of their abilities, as influenced by racial stereotypes, had a lot to do with how they performed. When other researchers picked up on Steele & Aronson’s findings and conducted similar studies, they came to the same conclusions.

Researchers found that stereotype threat doesn’t only apply to race. In another experiment, researchers studied male and female chess players; when told in advance that their opponent would be male, the female chess players performed markedly worse.

When told that their opponent was female, the women performed well. A third group of women wasn’t told the gender of their opponent, but they were told before the match that female chess players were stereotypically worse than men. These women also performed poorly. The results of the match were determined before the game had begun.

In 2008, researchers published a model of stereotype threat that broke down exactly why words like “intelligence” or “athletic ability” could influence test scores so dramatically. In a nutshell, the researchers found that, when we sit down to take a test, we have a finite amount of brainpower at our disposal. If much of the brain’s energy is spent suppressing negative stereotypes about ourselves, or worrying that we won’t do well because our race or gender isn’t predisposed to do well on the test, we have less energy to spend on actually completing the test.

Keeping positive

Stereotype threat is a theory that has its critics. It is, after all, very difficult to ascertain an individual’s personal stereotypes about race or gender prior to such studies. It is also very difficult to establish a control group. However, stereotype threat is a theory that holds merit.

Here’s the good news: Steve Stroessner, psychology professor at Barnard College, and Catherine Good, psychology professor at Baruch College and a colleague of Aronson’s at NYU, suggest using self-affirmation techniques to combat stereotype threat. Sit down with your child before an upcoming test, and ask them to come up with a list of things they are good at. Whether or not the items on the list have anything to do with the test matters little.

Once the brain starts on a positive tangent, it’s likely to continue. Positive thinking breeds more positive thinking. Imagine that!



Laura Mann graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. She also provides media assistance to the MediaWise Movement.


© Michael Mann, 2013, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.


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