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Stereotypes Have Profound Effect on Intellectual Test Performance

Stereotypes Have Profound Effect on Intellectual Test Performance


Yale researchers have found that the existence of negative stereotypes about abilities such as intelligence actually enhances the performance of those who do not bear the stereotype.

There have been many studies about how pervasive negative stereotypes about racial minorities and women can affect the performance of those targeted by such stereotypes.

“We were interested in whether these stereotypes also affect people they don’t target, or the reverse phenomenon,” says Gregory Walton, a graduate student in the psychology department at Yale and co-author of the study published last month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“Our evidence suggests that ‘stereotype lift’ improves the performance of White men on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) by, on average, 50 points — a performance boost that at the most selective colleges could make the difference between rejection and acceptance,” Walton says. “Stereotype-inspired social comparisons may help alleviate the self-doubt, anxiety and fear of rejection that otherwise hamper performance on important intellectual tests.”

Walton and his co-author, Dr. Geoffrey Cohen, a psychology professor at Yale, said only when negative stereotypes were explicitly rendered irrelevant to the test did the lift effect disappear. “Otherwise people automatically assume the stereotypes are relevant and their performance benefits,” Walton and Cohen said in the study.

The researchers based their results on a meta-analysis of 43 relevant studies. Walton said they were interested in the racial achievement gap on standardized tests, which he called “one of the most persistent and frustrating problems in the struggle to achieve an egalitarian society.”

“Our results provide an encouraging view of the racial achievement on standardized tests,” he says. “Traditionally people have explained this gap as the result of long-standing problems like poverty, or, worse yet, immutable genetic differences. Stereotype lift and related research indicate that the achievement gap may result in part from cues in the immediate psychological situation. If we can learn to control these cues, we may be able to greatly reduce the achievement gap.”

The study was supported by a research grant from Stanford University.

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