Scientific American‘s “Armor against Prejudice” on the True Damage a Stereotype Can Do

A common defense made by anyone who is called out for advancing a stereotype is, “Stereotypes exist for a reason,” the implied message being that they are most often true. But what if by simply saying that, you were putting someone at a disadvantage? What if insisting on the accuracy of a stereotype was one of the very factors that perpetuated it? Scientific American’s June issue has some intriguing information in the article “Armor against Prejudice” by Ed Yong, on the perils of “stereotype threat” and the fascinating ways we can combat it to give future generations a better chance of success.

Stereotype threat is a term that has been around since 1995 and has undergone quite a bit of research in the scientific community. Though there is some disagreement as to how severely it impacts the overall population, the concept is simple; the idea that by simply worrying that you will perpetuate a racial, gender, or cultural stereotype, you end up doing so. And apparently it only takes the most subtle of triggers to affect a person—such as being asked to fill out their race at the beginning of a standardized test.

In terms of how stereotype threat challenges us, it seems to have a greatest effect on working memory, which can arrest our ability to retain and work with current information. As a result, stereotype threat is a marked problem in classroom settings, and minorities are not the only groups that suffer; white students show signs of stereotype threat around black students where sports are concerned and Asian students in math classes, for example. And of course, girls have trouble in subjects that stereotypes indicate men have a better capacity for, such as science.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is quoted early in the article, discussing the “emotional tax” that stereotypes have levied against him and others in similar positions. This correlates with what studies have found in instances where stereotype threat is present. Not only does it prevent people from performing at their optimum level, but it puts emotional psychological strains on them as well, making it easy to misread body language cues, and causing them to view their own emotional state as a sign that failure is inevitable. The elements that we require to perform well under pressure—concentration, a level head, confidence—are the first things to evaporate in these scenarios.

The good news is that stereotype threat could be an easy thing to combat day to day. In tests run in different schools, researchers and teachers found that allowing students to complete short writing exercises where they were told to talk about whatever was personally important to them acted like something of a booster shot—it bolstered the confidence of students to the point where they were more immune to the threat. This method was so useful that black students closed a 40% percent academic gap between themselves and white students.

Scientific American Armor against Prejudice

Graphic by Jen Christiansen

In addition, enforcing how similar we are as human beings provides a helpful boost; many minority students fall prey to the concern that they will not be accepted by their peers in school, but researchers found that if they reframed that concern as a part of life, rather than race—essentially showing them surveys and stats that proved fitting in was the concern of all teenagers everywhere—it had an incredibly positive impact. The hope is that with these tools, teachers might be able to close achievement gaps in schools everywhere. There are factors that impede these methods from being universally workable; plenty of schools do not have diverse populations, for example, so stereotype threat is emerging from a different place. All the same, anything that provides children with an extra leg-up in the academic world is a plus.

It is also fascinating to consider the role that stereotype threat likely plays everywhere in our lives. Understanding that we are all concerned with detrimentally adhering to stereotypes casts a different light on an already deeply entrenched problem, giving undeniable proof of the damage it does to us mentally and emotionally. If it has these documented affects on young people in school, what sort of toll might it be taking in the workplace? When gathered with strangers? What about casual friends at parties? What could we and people around us achieve if we could find a way to dispel these useless labels?

With any luck, our awareness of the problem can lead to better and more permanent solutions.


Emily Asher-Perrin is pretty sure this research would have helped her a lot with math class. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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