Study aims to fight impact of “Stereotype Threat”

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.07.17 PM

By Max Pienky (Stanford Daily)

A recent Stanford study found that the grades of all students in the classroom improve when students at risk of negative stereotypes are protected from these stereotypes.

The study, published in the journal “Psychological Science,” sought to decrease students’ experiences of a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” A stereotype threat exists when a person is aware that they are being evaluated in a domain where people of their group are stereotyped as inadequate.

“There are different ways that stereotypes hold people back,” said Joseph T. Powers, lead author of the study. “In the most overt cases, people are denied resources like housing, education or jobs. But there’s a psychological toll of stereotypes that we often underappreciate.”

The psychological toll of stereotype threat has been studied extensively, and has been shown to undermine the performance of all people it affects, especially that of high achieving students.

In the study, seventh graders from a suburban northeastern middle school were subject to a psychological intervention called value affirmation on the first day of school. This 15-minute writing exercise asked students to reflect on their most important core values, and served to protect student identity and prevent stereotype threats from being internalized.

The direct effect of the value affirmation was to decrease the stereotype threat for affected students, and thus increase their grades. However, the exercise only helped students who were vulnerable to stereotype threat in the first place.

For example, African-American students are vulnerable to stereotype threat, whereas European-American students are not. As a result, when the value affirmation was performed, the direct effects showed raised grades for African-American students, but no grade change for European-American students.

However, the study’s key finding was that the value affirmation led to indirect positive effects for all students, not just those experiencing stereotype threat. According to the study, “Changed individuals can improve their social environments, and such improvements can benefit others regardless of whether they participated in the intervention.”

When value affirmation was performed, it decreased the stereotype threat in vulnerable students. Their improved performance then contributed to a more positive overall classroom environment, fostering collaboration and productivity. Because of this, grades of all students rose when vulnerable students felt safer, creating the indirect positive effect for those who did not experience stereotype threat.

In essence, stereotyped students experienced a twofold benefit from intervention, as they benefited from the individual psychological intervention and also from the more productive classroom environment as a whole. Non-stereotyped students, despite not being affected by the psychological intervention, were still able to benefit from the improved classroom environment.

While previous studies have found that value affirmation can have strong impacts for at-risk students, this study found that the indirect effects of the exercise were actually more beneficial than the direct effects.

“The effect for all students… was as large or larger than the direct effect of the intervention for the African-American students,” Powers said.

According to Powers, this study could shift thinking in social reform and intervention to focus on full ecological effects of psychological intervention, rather than only the direct effects.

“We all stand to gain from making these most vulnerable students feel safer, because when they are given the chance to thrive, they don’t thrive alone,” Powers said. “They pull up everyone around them.”

According to Powers, even minimal psychological interventions can have far-reaching positive consequences — individuals go on to influence the world around them in ways that are only beginning to be studied and understood.

“We may all be underestimating the true size of our effects,” Powers said.

Contact Max Pienkny at maxpienkny ‘at’