We’ve written before about how stereotypes can impair performance on math tests: for example, when women are told they are taking a math test for a study about gender differences in math ability, they perform more poorly than men. However, if they are first taught about how stereotypes can impair performance, their scores rise to equality with men.
But what about the other side of the stereotype spectrum? When people are expected to perform better due to a stereotype, how do those expectations affect performance? One possible answer is that they will perform even better. Another possibility is that they’ll choke under the pressure of living up to their reputed ability.
To try to differentiate between these two possibilities, Sapna Cheryan and Galen Bodenhausen tested three groups of Asian-American women, all college students who had indicated that it was important for them to do well in math. Each group took the same math test composed of questions from the Graduate Record Exam (the GRE—a standardized admissions test for U.S. graduate schools). However, before the exam, the groups were administered three different questionnaires, designed to focus participants on one of three aspects of their identity: ethnicity, gender, or individual identity. The questions, while not specifically invoking stereotypes such as the idea that Asian-Americans are better than average at math or that women perform poorly in math, certainly invited participants to invoke those impressions, with statements like “overall, my race is considered good by others.”
Here are the results:
Asian women who took the survey focusing on ethnicity performed significantly worse on the math test than those who took the individual-focus questionnaire. There was no difference between the individual survey group and the gender survey group.
Cheryan and Bodenhausen also found that the ethnicity group had a significantly lower ability to concentrate than the other groups in the study—in fact, this difference explained most of the difference between the ethnicity group and other groups. Cheryan and Bodenhausen claim that Asian-Americans’ “model minority” status—as a minority group that fits in and even excels in a Caucasian-dominated society—often leads to overwhelming pressure to succeed. They cite research by Ho, Driscoll, and Loosbrock, which found that math problems were given fewer points by graders for Asian-American students than European-Americans who gave the same answer. Since the penalty for failure appears to be larger for Asian Americans, it’s no wonder that they have difficulty concentrating when their ethnicity is highlighted.
The impact of stereotypes clearly is complex—we’ve reported on positive, negative, and neutral effects (as in the case of gender here). Perhaps this experiment’s findings on Asian-American women won’t be replicated with other groups. What’s certain is that stereotypes do have an important impact on performance. It’s possible that the most important reminder this study may offer is not to put too much faith in the results of a single test, whether it purports to measure math ability, IQ, or some other skill.
Cheryan, S., & Bodenhausen, G.V. (2000). When positive stereotypes threaten intellectual performance: The psychological hazards of “model minority” status. Psychological Science, 11(5), 399-402.