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Stereotype threat: Practice can protect us from its negative effects

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | November 9, 2010

When I was younger and played basketball in New York City (with fellow blogger Art Markman, I might add), a friend jokingly called me “Taco Jordan.” I’m still not sure whether I should have taken that as a compliment or an offense.

These days, I watch more than I play, and happened to catch a moment in which Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics got fouled and stepped up to the free throw line. As he approached the line, the entire arena got up, shouted his name, waved his jersey, cheered for him. The announcer clarified that Pierce was shooting his 20,000th career point, and that he would join an exclusive club of Celtics in that feat that includes only Havlicek and Bird. As I watched an entire sports complex focused on one man, a small fear sensation ran down my spine. All those people, all that attention, all that pressure! Ak.

Pierce swished the first free throw. Twenty thousand. He nodded in acknowledgment and raised his arms for a long moment. Then he calmly hit the second free throw; nothing but net. I thought to myself– had this been me, my arm would have turned to jelly. I doubt I would have even hit the rim, much less made the free throw. In other words, I would have completely choked under the pressure and the significance of the moment.

Brian Wilson

San Francisco Giants closing pitcher Brian Wilson

I am always amazed at the fortitude of professional athletes to rise to the occasion in big moments, like Pierce or Brian Wilson of the San Francisco Giants who clinched the World Series with a perfect strike down the plate. How do they do it? As it turns out, there is a very robust finding in psychology showing that when people are under conditions of physiological arousal, they are more likely to show their dominant response for the given situation. This means that for someone like Pierce, he is more likely to hit the free throw, whereas for me, it increases the likelihood of a perfect brick.

The contrasting consequences of arousal on performance remind me of one of the more beautiful examples of a scientist using logic to explain how a particular psychological phenomenon works.  Let me be specific. The phenomenon of stereotype threat has received a lot of attention recently, including in blogs by Art Markman and Sam Sommers. They do a great job of explaining it, but briefly, it refers to the idea that when reminded of a self-relevant stereotype of low ability, the stereotype is enough to depress performance. Thus, stereotypes of older adults being bad at driving actually cause older adults to drive poorly, and stereotypes of gender aptitude literally cause women to underperform in math. This is a robust phenomenon, and psychologists have spent a long time trying to figure out the mechanism through which stereotype threat affects performance. Among the mechanisms that have been proposed to account for stereotype threat are, as it turns out, anxiety and arousal. That is, when a person is reminded of a negative stereotype, they become anxious about the possibility that they might fulfill the stereotype, and this arousal gets in the way of performance and leads to the very underperformance one is trying to avoid.

But how do you prove that anxiety and arousal is the mechanism that explains stereotype threat? Psychologist Laurie O’Brien elegantly used the old finding about arousal and dominant responses to bear on this question (you can get the article, co-authored with Chris Crandall, here). She reasoned that if arousal in fact helps explain underperformance in stereotype threat situations, then the same rules that govern the effect of arousal on performance have to apply. Thus one would have to predict that if the dominant response in a given situation is actually one in which people are really good at, stereotype threat should actually improve performance.

Sherlock HolmesArmed with a clear prediction based on logic and deduction– it’s almost like a good Sherlock Holmes story– O’Brien tested her hypothesis. How? First, she first reminded women of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math, which has been repeatedly shown to induce stereotype threat. But then she had the same women take either a very difficult or a very easy math test. The clear prediction here is that in the difficult math test, in which the women did not have a lot of practice, their performance would suffer relative to when not reminded of the stereotype– the standard stereotype threat finding. However, given the easy math test (where the dominant response is the correct response) reminding women of the stereotype should, counterintuitively, improve women’s performance relative to controls. Again, this is the prediction one has to make if one is is assuming that arousal is a mechanism that helps explain stereotype threat effects.

This is exactly what O’Brien found. Her findings provide hope for us who feel constrained and frustrated by stereotype threat as both students and as educators. Stereotype threat is pervasive and real, and we now have solid evidence that the physiological arousal stemming from stereotype threat can undermine performance. Yet O’Brien’s findings remind us that one thing that we have control over is in the dominance of a given response.

Simply put, with practice, one can become an expert, and increase the likelihood that the correct response will be the dominant response. Paul Pierce wasn’t born sinking free throws, Wilson wasn’t born throwing strikeouts. And we are not born solving difficult math problems. But with practice, we can become really good at what we do, and buffer ourselves from the negative effects of performance stereotypes. It’s hard work, but it’s in our hands.

Practice makes perfect, perhaps — but we don’t need perfection. All we need is to do increase the likelihood of good performance being our dominant response.

Cross-posted from Psychology Today.