Education, Social Science, Top Stories

Lee Jussim Is Right to Be Skeptical about ‘Stereotype Threat’

Rutgers University professor and social psychologist Lee Jussim recently posted a link on Twitter to a study that found “neither an overall effect of stereotype threat on math performance, nor any moderated stereotype effects”:

He did so in response to a Harvard University graduate student expressing surprise that there are people who think “stereotype threat” doesn’t exist:

Dr. Robin DiAngelo would also be quite surprised to hear such doubts. In her book, What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Illiteracy, DiAngelo defines “internalized oppression” as “[t]he result of socialization in which members of a minoritized group are conditioned into their roles,” which “causes them to see themselves as naturally inferior to the relationally dominant group and less deserving of the resources of society.”

She cites the research of Claude Steele on stereotype threat. “Claude Steele’s work in stereotype threat,” DiAngelo writes, “demonstrates internalized oppression in action.” The idea is “that a person’s social identity as defined by group membership—age, gender, religion, and race—has significance in situations in which attention is drawn to that identity.” If this identity has negative stereotypes attached to it, then the person with that identity “will tend to underperform” because anxiety about that stereotype causes the person to “confirm the stereotype.” DiAngelo cites “a study in which black students were asked to identify their race before taking a standardized test.” In this study, the black students “consistently scored lower than black students who were not asked to identify their race before the test.” The scores “did not correspond with their previously identified abilities.”

“These results,” she writes, “have been consistent in many other studies Steele and his colleagues have conducted.” She then translates stereotype threat into social justice terms by calling it “internalized oppression”, a state “in which a person believes the negative information about their group and acts on it, fulfilling society’s expectations.” We are asked to “consider the beliefs many teachers hold about children of color and the role these beliefs play in children’s school performances.” The “[c]onstant focus on what is termed the achievement gap and pressure to perform on high-stakes standardized tests—or else!—surround these students and create a vicious circle.”

As is typical of her work, however, DiAngelo only considers the research that supports her theory. University of Chicago economist John List, on the other hand, found the theory eminently plausible but decided to test it anyway. In an interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, he elaborates:

I believe in priming. Psychologists have shown us the power of priming, and stereotype threat is an interesting type of priming. Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford, popularized the term stereotype threat. He had people taking a math exam, for example, jot down whether they were male or female on top of their exams, and he found that when you wrote down that you were female, you performed less well than if you did not write down that you were female. They call this the stereotype threat. My first instinct was that effect probably does happen, but you could use incentives to make it go away. And what I mean by that is, if the test is important enough or if you overlaid monetary incentives on that test, then the stereotype threat would largely disappear, or become economically irrelevant.

List says that he and his team designed an experiment to test this theory, and found that they could not induce stereotype threat, no matter how hard they tried. His team would tell the test takers, “Women do not perform as well as men on this test and we want you now to put your gender on the top of the test.” List notes that “other social scientists would say, that’s crazy—if you do that, you will get stereotype threat every time.” But, contrary to expectations, it did not materialize. List maintains that priming works, but has concluded that “stereotype threat has a lot of important boundaries that severely limit its generalizability.”

So what explains the popularization of a theory this resistant to replication? “I think,” List says, “what has happened is, a few people found this result early on and now there’s publication bias.” He continues:

…when you talk behind the scenes to people in the profession, they have a hard time finding it. So what do they do in that case? A lot of people just shelve that experiment; they say it must be wrong because there are 10 papers in the literature that find it. Well, if there have been 200 studies that try to find it, 10 should find it, right? This is a Type II error but people still believe in the theory of stereotype threat. I think that there are a lot of reasons why it does not occur. So while I believe in priming, I am not convinced that stereotype threat is important.

Thoughtful consideration of type I and type II errors (also known as false positives and false negatives, respectively) is not something you are going to find much of in radical contemporary theorizing about race. As I have written here and here, this kind of thinking falls prey to the pitfalls of any hypothesis that disdains statistical analysis. “[M]any critical race scholars,” the authors of one paper note, “are fundamentally skeptical of (if not simply opposed to) quantitative data and techniques to begin with.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that statistics provide a highway to truth. But statistics do offer robust tools with which we can test whether or not claims hold up against evidence. As I have stated before, “one of the strengths of the scientific method is that its emphasis on methodological rigor is a robust defense against any presumption of infallibility.”

None of this is to say whether one side or the other is definitively right, of course. But Professor Jussim is surely right to be skeptical about stereotype threat. As a review of the literature notes, “Two decades of research have demonstrated the harmful effects that stereotype threat can exert on a wide range of populations in a broad array of performance domains. However, findings with regards to the mediators that underpin these effects are equivocal.” In other words, even if there is correlation between stereotype threat and measures of performance, the causal relationship is far from being well understood, and may simply not be there.

Di Angelo’s writing about stereotype threat, white fragility, structural oppression and so on, on the other hand, is more like dogma than scientific theory. So it is not surprising that she considers only the evidence that confirms her a priori view of how racism works, rather than conflicting evidence that might give her pause for further reflection. If the popularity of the concept of “stereotype threat” is simply a product of publication bias, it may not be clear evidence—or indeed any evidence at all—of “internalized oppression.”

 

Jonathan Church is a government economist, CFA charter holder, and writer whose work has appeared in Areo, Arc Digital, Merion, Agonist Journal, Good Men Project, and other places. You can follow him on Twitter @jondavidchurch

Featured Image: Robin DiAngelo speaking about anti-blackness at the 2019 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting. (YouTube)

Comments

  1. Jonathan Church is a government economist

    We all have our crosses to bear.

  2. Yeah this threat is real.
    I have internalised the stereotype of a women’s inability to spend wisely therefore I am doomed to always ‘mathematically’ under perform in very nice shops. But don’t think hubbie is buyin’ the theory either…

  3. The work of Dr Raj Chetty shows where the real barriers to social mobility exist. There are benign social systems (such as strong families or study work ethics), which some groups benefit from more than others. Many theorists are like gardeners complaining that the red roses are doing poorly, because the white roses are doing well- when they should be asking what conditions exist that help the white roses flourish?

  4. It’s interesting how many famous experiments have failed the replication test, and especially those that sell a progressive story.

    Here’s another one I just stumbled across (search for “NPR” in the linked page):

    Remember the research showing that poor people (or black people) hear fewer words from their parents as children, and that’s why they fall behind in school? It failed replication.
    This is also an interesting study in narrative construction. When everyone believed in the word gap, it was framed as an argument for progressive ideas – “maybe you think poor/black people’s problems are their own fault, but actually the odds were stacked against them because of a childhood word gap, so we should be more willing to admit blame for poverty and fund social services”.
    Now that the word gap’s been proven false, its falsehood is an argument supporting progressive ideas - “maybe you think we don’t need to examine structural inequality because the only problem is a word gap, but that’s been debunked and is just racist victim-blaming, so we should be more willing to admit blame for poverty and fund social services.". The science did a 180, but the political implications stayed exactly the same.

    Really fascinating: whatever the results are, they are always interpreted in such a way that they support the progressive agenda. And the contrary facts as well.

  5. Really fascinating: Whatever the results are, they are always bent to support the progressive agenda…

    If head, I win; if tails, you lose.

  6. I pretty much agree with you, apart from this last bit. I grew up with a Dad and a brother who were good at sports but I still gravitated toward the arts. I know this is is cultivation theory (which is another form of stereotype threat in my opinion). I don’t think this is an accurate statement. People don’t just become better/more interested in something because you tell them they’re inherently bad/good at it. There’s no real evidence for this.

    Where you are right, is that if people can get away with breaking the rules or have lower standards put on them (your Liberal professors example), you will find them more likely to under perform. What you refer to as internalised oppression, I believe I would refer to as mean world syndrome. If you constantly cherry pick events and studies showing how the world is heavily flawed, people will start to believe the world is a more dangerous/oppressive place than it really is (but only if it fits their preconceived biases). This plays on people’s fears and creates a bigotry of low expectations. As far as I can see, this is the only way to cultivate reactions in people.

  7. Actually, you can point to some data, which is that women buy 3x more clothes than men in their lifetime.

    Also, as per a trans friend of mine who had some revelations during the process, womens clothes are thinner, less warm, and have fewer pockets. So they may wear out faster, necessitating more replacement. Plus women seem to need more variety. Men it’s mostly whatever you wear to work plus a good suit, in my case a good tux, and some rough clothes for painting, carpentry, and gardening. There is some variation, but this tends to hold true, that men need far fewer clothes.

    Plus, women have this makeup and jewelry thing, which is needed to fend off other women. I never comment on women wearing less makeup or more, but I have seen plenty of comments from other women. I know plenty of guys who could care less, and I have run across data suggesting this is the norm. (particularly in my Hispanic students, who use a trowel and paintbrush sometimes. Only actors use more. Cultural, I know. I was raised in a culture with understated makeup.)

    Also, depending on the household, women can control up to 80% of household expenditures.

    So you have some excuses. Now use 'em!

  8. When you see young African Americans who are both angry and very conscious of racism boasting of their own weakness to ‘stereotype threat,’ you know you need to be skeptical. You’re telling me that a few insulting words actually make them get math answers wrong? And they know it, but it happens anyway?

    Stop and think - is this really plausible? When you call a person a fat pig, do they slink away in shame? Or do they punch you in the face? Isn’t it equally, if not more plausible that negative priming would cause minorities to do better, and not worse? When you’re told you can’t do something, do you nod your head, or fight back?

    It’s a long way from ‘priming is real’ to this is real. A Ph.D who doesn’t know that is not a rigorous thinker.

  9. My father was born on a farm, and raised with these attitudes. His brothers had an eight grade and ninth grade education, respectively.

    He went to a 1 room schoolhouse through 6th grade, and when he started, there was sn 18 year old in 6th grade there. He began working to help support the family (my grandfather went to jail) at 13. Between freshman and start of junior year, he was at 11 different high schools. He was working three different part time jobs, dating my mother, and taking concurrent classes to graduate on time (i.e., Spanish II and III the same year) to graduate.

    For financial context, he had dress shoes and workboots only until 14, and was otherwise barefoot. His football coach had noticed his feet bleeding around the duct tape and bought him shoes for the field. An uncle bought him his pads.

    On graduation, he became a groundskeeper/gardener at a local university while taking courses. By 27, he had tenure. By 40, ge chaired two national committees, was senior in the stste public employee union, anf had 4 graduate degrees.

  10. My training was in psychometrics (test theory, multivariate analysis, design of experiments).

    In recent years, psychology has been plagued by a replicability crisis. It is precisely studies and effects such as this “stereotype threat” (ST) which are the issue. These are marginal effects which have great difficulty under replication.

    I can see several reasons why this failure to replicate is seen:

    1. There are some people who are susceptible to ST and others that are not. The studies that show ST issues get susceptible people while other studies do not get such people. This is an issue of the “fallacy of homogeneity”, which is my term for the assumption that the whole population is exactly identicle, which is patently ridiculous.

    2. There is an issue with a known effect. Since people know about ST, they are less susceptible to it.

    3. There are known issues with replication of studies. If the conditions of the replication study are not the same as the original study, or the materials are not as prone to providing the ST result, or other differences in the studies not understood are present, then the study will not replicate.

    4. If the studies are too small with insufficient statistical power, the effect might be present, but not statistically significant.

    The phenomena in psychology are more prone to failure to replicate simply due to lack of homogeneity. We are not all susceptible to the same beliefs, attitudes, or knowledge as others. If a phenomena requires an “internal state” that may not be present, you may not find the same results.

  11. “[M]any critical race scholars,” the [authors of one paper note] “are fundamentally skeptical of (if not simply opposed to) quantitative data and techniques to begin with.”

    The author didn’t mention the elephant in the room — many in these “critical studies” fields have no actual knowledge of scientific research methods or statistics, and are “opposed” to quantitative data (they lack any understanding of) for political reasons. To grant members of such fields a skeptical stance is being generous, since skepticism implies enough knowledge/expertise to judge the uncertainty of a claim.

  12. So do I, but exams were more like playing in a big game, you against the prof. Back in those days, they enjoyed pushing you hard, but were really pleased when you succeeded.

  13. But isn’t that 2/3rd of pedagogy, getting the kid’s interest up & giving her goals for which she has to strive mightily but ultimately successfully?

  14. I think @castlebay was right to question the scientific legitimacy of anyone who rejects quantification as a means to interrogate reality. Whether “stereotype threat” exists, how it’s different from “internalized oppression”… These confused and confusing concepts hardly seem relevant when the people concerned with them are ideologues operating from an unscientific handbook.

    But let’s say that the activists promulgating all these concepts are right, and being a minority causes actual psychological damage. What is the solution? Are we going to hope the One True Communism can purge all inconvenient aspects of our psychology? Should we retreat into ethnostates so no one is ever in the minority?

    It seems to me these “studies” are uninterested in describing reality, or even mitigating adverse effects. Rather entire swaths of academy appears to exist to manufacture political ammunition for the far left.

  15. That’s why I always loved teachers who taught to the top of the class, and were very demanding.

    One prof in particular I still think of fondly, 40 years later, had been a pilot in the Battle of Britain. Very old school, and no excuses ever. You either kept up, or went elsewhere.

    And another favourite teacher - I’ve mentioned this one before - who in middle school French class looked at me after I had screwed up again and said, “CB, there’s 100 million people in this world who speak French fluently. Some of them must be dumber than you!”

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