Question of the Month:

Impact of Racial Stereotypes and Academic Performance

March 2010

Q:  Your museum is located at a predominantly White university. So it's likely that most of the visitors to the museum are college-age White students. Exactly how do they "benefit" from being exposed to those objects? Could it be that all the talk about the importance of discussing racial prejudice and stereotyping is talk that should be left in the 1950s?

--Katie McDonald - Austin, Texas

A:  A new study found that negative racial stereotypes don't just hurt African Americans – they can have negative effects on the people who hold, or even think about, those stereotypes.

The study found that white students who were subtly primed to think about racial stereotypes of African Americans performed worse on a math test than did other white students who weren't so primed.

The results suggest that white people who are made aware of stereotypes that Blacks don't do well in school may impair their own academic performance, at least in the short term, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"It sounds strange, but people who think about stereotypes of other groups may act in ways that are consistent with that stereotype – even if they are not part of that stereotyped group," Petty said.

Petty conducted the study with S. Christian Wheeler and W. Blair G. Jarvis, two doctoral psychology students at Ohio State. The results appear in the March 2001 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The researchers conducted two similar studies, involving a total of 157 non-African-American college students. All were instructed to write an essay about a day in the life of a college student named either "Tyrone" or "Erik" Walker. The belief was that, because of the names, participants would think of Tyrone as an African American and Erik as a white student.

After writing the essay, students took a standardized test excerpted from the math section of the GRE. The test included 30 questions and students had 20 minutes to complete the test.

Results showed students who wrote about "Tyrone" scored lower on the test than did students who wrote about "Erik." For example, in one study, students who wrote about "Tyrone" scored an average of 4.5 on the test, compared to 6.2 for those who wrote about Erik. (Students got 1 point for each correct answer, with one-fifth of a point taken off for incorrect answers.)

Although the results might seem odd, they are not without precedent, Petty said. Other researchers had found that when young people were primed to think about stereotypes of older people, they were more likely to act in an elderly manner – walking more slowly after they thought the experiment had ended. But this is the first study to show an effect involving the impact of racial stereotypes on academic performance.

The key to this experiment is to get students thinking about the stereotypes without them consciously knowing what they are doing, Petty said. In these experiments, students were not given any explicit stereotypes to consider – they were simply asked to write about a person with a stereotypically white or African American name.

The more that the name conjures up stereotypical thoughts among the students, the more effective it will be in influencing their behavior, Petty said. For example, the researchers found that students who wrote about Tyrone did worse on the math test if their essays contained high levels of stereotypical content about Tyrone. Stereotypical content included references that Tyrone was a star football or basketball player.

"One strong stereotype is that African Americans are more likely to be athletes, and that athletes tend to be poor students," Petty said. "Participants who said that Tyrone was an athlete, or who included other stereotypes, did worse on the math test."

Participants also did worse on the math test if they wrote about Tyrone in the first person – as if they themselves were Tyrone. "It may be that people who wrote in the first person identified more strongly with the stereotypes or held the stereotype more strongly, and were thus more affected by them when they took the test," Petty said. In addition, participants in one of the experiments were specifically asked at the end of the experiment to indicate the race of the person they wrote about. Those who indicated Tyrone was an African American did worse on the math test than those who did not.

The fact that participants in this study were affected by racial stereotypes does not mean that they are prejudiced, or even that they believe in the stereotypes, Petty said. In one of the two studies, the participants completed a questionnaire that measured their levels of racism. The results showed that the "Tyrone" effect was the same for those who scored high in racism as for those who scored low. "We're not activating prejudice in this study; this is a much more automatic response that arises from the stereotypes people are exposed to and store in memory," he said.

In fact, the participants don't necessarily have to believe that the stereotypes are true to be affected, Petty said. "You just need to have the association – you have to know that there's a stereotype that African Americans are more likely to be athletes, and that athletes are poor students, for example."

Researchers don't know why negative stereotypes hurt the people who hold those stereotypes, Petty said. In this case, it may be that participants in the study begin to identify, however briefly, with the stereotypes that they are considering. For example, if they are thinking about the stereotype of African Americans as athletes, they may think of the possibility that they could have been athletes. "Some people may think, 'I like sports' and how important is school anyway? Momentarily, they are out of their academic roles and thinking of themselves more in terms of what they could have been."

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Canadian Social and Humanities Research Council.

March 2010 response by researchers Richard Petty, S. Christian Wheeler and W. Blair G. Jarvis of Ohio State University (written by Jeff Grabmeier, OSU)


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