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Do You Answer The Question Or The Person Asking?

Last updated on June 26, 2010

I just saw this interesting post titled “How a Self-Fulfilling Stereotype Can Drag Down Performance” by Shankar Vedantam from Washington Post’s Department of Human Behavior.  The article talks about how “stereotype threat” can affect our responses to a challenge, and consequently, our performance.

Here is one experiment described in the article:

Sociologist Min-Hsuing Huang recently decided to ask whether the race of the person administering the survey mattered: He found that when black people and white people answered 10 vocabulary questions posed by a white interviewer, blacks on average answered 5.49 questions correctly and whites answered 6.33 correctly — a gap typical of the ones found on many standardized tests.

Huang then examined the performance of African Americans who interacted with black interviewers: He found that black respondents then answered 6.33 questions correctly — the same as white ones. The reason African Americans scored more poorly on tests administered by white interviewers, Huang theorized, is that these situations can make the issue of race salient and subtly remind the test-takers of the societal stereotype that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.

Based on other studies, here is what the experts are saying:

Psychologists such as Claude Steele at Stanford University came up with the term “stereotype threat” for the phenomenon: When people are threatened by a negative stereotype they think applies to them, they can be subtly biased to live out that stereotype.

The threats do not have to take place at a conscious level: When volunteers in experimental studies that have found huge stereotype-threat differences in performance are told about the phenomenon afterward, they invariably tell researchers that the theory is interesting but does not apply to them.

How you are feeling in the context of taking a test can largely affect how you perform. This is nicely summarized by the concluding paragraph of the article:

Stereotype threats seem to emerge in large part because certain settings can subtly make particular groups feel out of place: A woman in a math class, a black or Latino man confronted by a vocabulary test, a white man trying to make a basketball team. When confronted by challenges that inevitably arise in these contexts, people threatened by stereotypes get the false message that they ought to be doing something else.

So the next time you take a test or an interview, it might help to be aware that stereotype threat, as well as,   how you are primed before the test, can affect how you perform. I believe that by becoming aware of such things, we can become more resilient to such effects and make the best of every situation.

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