Over the last couple of decades one of the most studied topics in social psychology has been stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when worry about conforming to a negative stereotype leads to underperformance on a test or other task by a member of the stigmatized group. For example, we sometimes hear that men are better than women in math. A woman who knows about this stereotype may try to fight it by attempting to perform really well on a math exam, but the anxiety and distraction caused by the stereotype may actually lead her to get a lower score on the exam than she would otherwise. Thus, women’s performance in math may not be due to lower ability compared to men but to negative stereotypes.
While the influence stereotype effect has on individual performance has been studied extensively, there is not too much known about how stereotype effect affects the performance of groups. In order to find out more about the influence it has in a group dynamic, Nicholas P. Aramovich designed an experimental study to see how groups compared to individuals when presented with stereotype threat.
The experiment consisted of 171 female undergraduate students who either participated as individuals or in groups of three. Each individual or group was then randomly assigned to a stereotype threat condition (threat vs. no threat) at a laboratory session that was conducted by a male researcher. The participants were asked to complete a letters to number problem, where 10 letters (A-J) are randomly assigned without replacement to the digits 0-9. The task is to determine which letter is assigned to each number in as few trials as possible. The manipulation used to study stereotype effect was information given to the participants prior to the start of the task. Although all participants were played a recording that went over instructions and what to expect from the experiment, those in the “threat” condition were also informed by the head researcher that he was interested in how women would perform on this problem relative to men. Participants in the “threat” condition were also asked to identify their gender on the problem worksheets.
The results of the experiment yield some interesting information. While the stereotype threat negatively affected the performance of individuals, it is clear that groups in the “threat” condition were able to overcome stereotype threat and perform just as well as groups in the control (no threat) condition . In addition to being compared to average individuals, the groups were also compared against the “best individuals” (as identified by the researchers). While the best individuals performed equally as well as groups did in the control condition, the best individuals performed worse in the “threat” condition than the groups did.
These findings are important because people face stereotype threats regularly in the real world and knowing how to lessen their influences could lead to increases in efficiency. We have known for quite some time that stereotype threat leads to negative performance. Now, we understand that the best way to avoid these failures in performance is to work with others who are facing similar threats. When working in groups, people can attain goals that they would not be able to reach if they were working by themselves.
Aramovich, N. (2014). The effect of stereotype threat on group versus individual performance. Small Group Research, 45(2), 176-197.