'Stereotype threat' negatively affects students
Princeton students fall victim to the “stereotype threat,” according to a study led by Adam Alter GS ’09.
The “stereotype threat” is the phenomenon in which reminding people of negative stereotypes associated with their group identity can encourage the fulfillment of those stereotypes.
“When reminded of their group membership, for example, white people struggle athletically, black people struggle academically, women struggle mathematically and men struggle linguistically,” Alter explained in an e-mail. Alter wanted to find out if the way that people are reminded of their group membership determines the magnitude of this effect.
Alter examined the stereotype which holds that students from high schools with low representation at the University feel more unsure about their academic ability when they arrive as freshmen than students from high schools that send many students to Princeton. In a survey of 19 undergraduates, 16 said that students from poorly represented high schools are more anxious about their academic ability than other students.
In Alter's experiment, which tested 124 students, those from poorly represented high schools performed worse than those from highly represented high schools when the test was presented as a “reliable measure of [their] basic quantitative ability,” according to the study. When the test was presented as a measure of students’ ability to “do as well as [they possibly could],” however, the gap between students from different high schools disappeared.
Alter concluded from the experiment that the presentation of a test as either a “threat” or a “challenge” determines whether negative stereotypes are fulfilled.
“People cope much better with challenges than with threats, so we expected the effects of a stereotype threat to be diminished or eliminated when we framed the threat as a challenge,” Alter explained.
Psychology professor Susan Fiske said that Alter’s research adds nuance to the current understanding of stereotype threats.
“What is new here is Alter’s finding ways to overcome stereotype threat by framing the problem as a challenge instead of a threat,” Fiske said in an e-mail.
Several students from under-represented high schools said that they could understand the development of the stereotype examined by Alter in his study.
Dale Shepherd ’13, who believes he is the first person ever to attend the University from Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., said he felt the transition to college was difficult because he did not come from an academically rigorous background like some of his peers.
“Sometimes I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be here,” he said.
Yet psychology concentrator Omoshalewa Bamkole ’11 -— who is the first student she knows of to attend the University from Teaneck High School in Teaneck, N.J., in at least five years — said she was confident in her ability to succeed academically upon her acceptance.
“I got in,” she remembered thinking. “They must think I’m smart.”