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Stereotype Threat: Overcoming Stereotypes One Neuron at a Time

The SAT is experiencing an existential crisis. In 1990 the name changed from “Scholastic Aptitude Test” to “Scholastic Assessment Test” because it wasn’t clear if the SAT actually measured intelligence. Then, a few years later in 1993, the name changed to “SAT I: Reasoning Test” to distinguish it from “SAT II: Subject Tests.” In 2004 the roman numerals were dropped and it became the “SAT Reasoning Test,” and a writing section was added. Now, it doesn’t stand for anything, it’s simply the “SAT.” It isn’t clear what it measures either, and there are plenty of issues to debate including possible cultural and socioeconomic biases. But one question that isn’t asked is: Does the name of the test influence performance?

Surely, as one author says, “it doesn’t matter whether the test is described as a measure of IQ or a set of puzzles.” But a study done by Claude Steele a few years back illustrates otherwise. Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who studies the effects of performance anxiety on standardized-tests, gave Stanford sophomores questions from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and prompted them with one of two descriptions: that the test measured their innate intelligence or that it did not measure their innate intelligence – he said it was just a preparatory drill for the later group. He found, alarmingly, that white students out performed black students when the test “measured innate intelligence,” but all students performance virtually identical when the test was “just a drill.”

What’s going on here is termed stereotype threat, and it describes a “psychological state that people experience when they feel they are at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong.” This means that black students performed worse when the questions measured “intelligence” because “worrying about confirming a negative stereotype uses up mental resources and triggers anxiety, which makes it harder to concentrate.” It does not only apply to racial stereotypes either. Women, for example, perform worse on math tests when gender differences are highlighted. Likewise, they do worse in stimulated driving tests that are designed to “study why men are better drivers than women.”

My favorite of these studies (though this one did not test stereotype threat directly) comes from Dutch researchers Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg out of the Universtiy of Nijmegen. They created two groups of participants and had them answer 42 difficult Trivial Pursuit questions. Here was the catch: they told one group to take five minutes to contemplate what it would be like to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind and the other group to think about soccer hooligans. They found subjects in the “professor” group answered correctly 55.6 percent of the time while subjects in the “hooligans” group answered correctly only 42.6 percent of the time. What’s remarkable about this study is that priming the subjects not only activated associated traits (e.g., professor with smart and hooligan with dumb), it influenced behavior. That is, it didn’t make them more intelligent, it merely brought the best out.

So it turns out that it does matter what the SAT stands for and what it claims to test. An SAT that measures intelligence favors white students because it puts them in the “professor” mind-set and it is disadvantaging to black students because it puts them in the “hooligan” mindset. None of this is intentional of course, but that’s the larger problem.

All of these studies can be partially explained by how the brain stores information. While we tend to think of our memories like the memories of computers, where bits of information are neatly stored as time goes by, the reality is that human memory is far more associative. This means that whereas a computer simply shelves bits of information by date and name, humans store memories by date, name, place, smell, color and any other relevant bit of information that was present when the memory was stored. The result is a memory web, much like a spider web, where everything is associated (to different degrees) with everything else. Here’s a quick test to illustrate this point. Answer these questions out loud and quickly

  1. What continent is Kenya in?
  2. What are the two opposing colors in the game of chess?
  3. Name any animal.

If you are like twenty percent of people you just blurted out, zebra! This is because your “zebra neurons” are associated with your “Africa neurons” and your “black and white neurons.” Moreover, when your Africa and black and white neurons are activated at the same time your zebra neurons are much more exited than, say, your octopus neurons. This is why only one percent of people say zebra when they are asked to name an animal out of the blue. To be sure, neurons are not specific to objects or ideas (and there are different types of memory to be distinguished), but you get the point. Our memory is much more web-like and associative than the memory of a computer.

This helps us understand stereotype threat. When Steele told his participants that his test was going to measure intelligence, the white students performed better because intelligence is more associated with their race at the neuronal level. That is, intelligence primed them to perform better in the same way that Africa and chess primed you to say zebra. Of course, it is just a stereotype – no credible studies show that one race of people is more intelligent than another. But what’s concerning is that stereotype threat is difficult to reverse. Just like it is almost physically impossible to not think about zebras when you think about Africa, animals, and blackness and whiteness, it is also difficult to not think about certain groups of people having to do with certain traits and behaviors. As the neuroscientist Dean Buonomano explains, “the brain is well designed to form new links between concepts, but the converse is not true: there is not specific mechanism for ‘unlinking.’ My brain can adjust to the new turn of events by creating new links between Pluto and dwarf planet, Pluto and Kuiper Belt Object, or Pluto and not a planet. But the Pluto/planet link cannot be rapidly erased and will likely remain ingrained in my neural circuits for the rest of my life.”

Buonomano’s point also helps explain why it usually takes an entire generation to overcome major societal and academic shifts; the civil rights movement didn’t happen over night after all, and the Copernican revolution took even longer. But that is certainly not to say that it is fruitless to try to persuade older generations of what is better for society and more scientifically accurate. Just the opposite is true. It is only when large groups of people get together with a single message that negative associations can be overturned for the better.

Hopefully, we can band together and get rid of the SAT all together! Cause we all know how awful standardized tests are…

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