Stereotype Threat - Mechanisms

Mechanisms

Although numerous studies demonstrate the effects of stereotype threat on performance, questions remain as to the specific cognitive factors which underlie these effects. Steele and Aronson originally speculated that anxiety and narrowed attention, resulting from attempts to suppress stereotype-related thoughts, could contribute to the observed deficits in performance. In 2008, Toni Schmader, Michael Johns, and Chad Forbes published an integrated model of stereotype threat that focused on three interrelated factors:

  1. stress arousal;
  2. performance monitoring, which narrows attention; and,
  3. efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions.

Schmader et al. suggest that these three factors summarize the pattern of evidence that has been accumulated by past experiments on stereotype threat. For example, stereotype threat has been shown to disrupt working memory and executive function, increase arousal, increase self-consciousness about one's performance, and cause individuals to try and suppress negative thoughts as well as negative emotions such as anxiety. People have a limited amount of cognitive resources available. When a large portion of these resources are spent focusing on anxiety and nervousness, the individual is likely to perform worse on the task at hand.

A number of studies looking at physiological and neurological responses support Schmader, Johns, and Forbes' integrated model of the processes that produce stereotype threat. Supporting an explanation in terms of stress arousal, one study found that African-Americans under stereotype threat exhibit larger increases in arterial blood pressure. One study found increased cardiovascular activation amongst women who watched a video in which men outnumbered women at a math and science conference. Other studies have similarly found that individuals under stereotype threat display increased heart rates. Stereotype threat may also activate a neuroendocrine stress response, as measured by increased levels of cortisol while under threat. The physiological reactions which are induced by stereotype threat can often be subconscious, and can distract and interrupt cognitive focus from the task.

In regards to performance monitoring and vigilance, studies of brain activity have supported the idea that stereotype threat increases both of these processes. Forbes and colleagues evoked electroencephalogram (EEG) signals which measure electrical activity along the scalp. This allowed the researchers ascertain that individuals experiencing stereotype threat were more vigilant for performance related stimuli. Another used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) to investigate brain activity associated with stereotype threat.

The researchers found that women experiencing stereotype threat while taking a math test showed heightened activation in the ventral stream of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a neural region thought to be associated with social and emotional processing. Wraga and colleagues found that women under stereotype threat showed increased activation in the ventral ACC and the amount of this activation predicted performance decrements on the task. When individuals were made aware of a performance related stimuli, they were more likely to experience stereotype threat.

A study done by Rydell, Rydell, and Boucher has shown that not only can stereotype threat affect performance but it can also affect the ability to learn new information. A study was done on undergraduate women in which half of them were presented with “gender fair” information and the other half was not. In addition, the study also investigated the benefit of the “gender fair” information on women taking a mathematical test. The women were split into four separate condition groups: control group, stereotype threat only, stereotype threat removed before learning, and stereotype threat removed after learning. The results of the study showed that the women who were presented with the “gender fair” information performed better on the math related test than the women who were not presented with this information. This study also showed that it is more beneficial for the “gender fair” information to be presented prior to learning rather than after learning. This topic does need further study but these results do show that eliminating threat prior to women taking mathematical tests can help them to perform better. It seems that if stereotype is recognized prior to the test, performance will decrease.

A similar study showed that the number of math problems that women chose to attempt was reduced due to the activation of stereotype threat. This study was done on men and women at a private university who had taken calculus I and higher level math courses. Saliva samples were collected from the participants to obtain cortisol levels. They also had to use a likert scale to rate perceived level of math ability of the male examiner. The results could have been affected by the fact that participants were being evaluated on the number of problems attempted, rather than the number of problems answered correctly which is not typical in normal classroom settings.

Read more about this topic:  Stereotype Threat

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