The Dangers of Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat can affect the way students perform in the UMAT.

Some students are vulnerable to “stereotype threat.” This is being aware the group they belong to is often stereotyped as intellectually inferior. The fear of confirming the stereotype by doing poorly on a test actually creates an anxiety. It is this anxiety that poorly affects their performance on a test, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consider this study conducted at Stanford:

A group of undergraduates — some athletes and some not — was given a test made up of questions from the Graduate Record Examination (G.R.E.), the admissions test for graduate school. Just before tackling the questions from the G.R.E., the students completed a questionnaire that asked whether they belonged to a sports team, what sport they played and whether they had experienced scheduling conflicts between athletics and academic activities like course meetings and laboratory sessions. (A control group received no questions about athletics, instead answering questions about the dining services on campus.)

Student-athletes who were reminded of their identity as members of a sports team did significantly worse on the test than student-athletes who were not so reminded, and the effect was stronger for male students than for female students.

What does this mean?

Psychologists theorize stereotype threat affects individuals’ performance in three ways.

  • Stress: The physiological stress they feel at the prospect of being unfavorably evaluated impairs areas of the brain responsible for complex thinking. This can decrease students’ ability to apply problem solving skills in the UMAT.
  • Excessive self-monitoring: in an effort to ensure they will triumph over the stereotype, people monitor their own performance closely — How am I doing? Am I smart enough for this? Do I belong in college at all? This monitoring, while intended to aid their performance, actually uses up mental resources that would otherwise be applied to the UMAT. The UMAT requires full concentration, cognitive resources should not be wasted on unnecessary thoughts.
  • Uneven distribution of cognitive resources: individuals under stereotype threat try hard not to think about their performance worries, pushing away negative thoughts and feelings — another well-intentioned move that costs them mental resources needed for the test itself. Students should try to focus on the UMAT.

What can you do about it?

Simply being aware of stereotype threat can help reduce its effects. Parents can explain students how stereotype threat works. Having read this article also helps raise awareness.

Students should adopt a “growth mind-set”. The belief that ability is not fixed, but can expand through effort and practice. That is, your ability to do well in the UMAT is not fixed based on the “group” you belong to. You can change it through effort and practice.

Don’t worry about it. Instead of being concerned about fulfilling the stereotype, focus on the UMAT. Your mind needs support during these difficult times, not negative thoughts to weigh it down.