If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.
While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.
A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.