Stereotypes can impact self-assessment and learning ability

December 13, 2004

Research has shown that stereotypes can impair the standardized test performance of African Americans. A recent psychological study, which examined the long-term effects of stereotypes, suggests that stereotypes may also impact a person's academic self-assessment and overall learning ability.

Authors Joshua Aronson, New York University, and Michael Inzlicht, Wilfrid Laurier University, found evidence that stereotype vulnerability -- the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by stereotypes about one's social category -- is associated with uncertainty about one's academic self-knowledge. These findings are presented in the study "The Ups and Downs of Attributional Ambiguity: Stereotype Vulnerability and the Academic Self-Knowledge of African American College Students," published in the December 2004 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

Psychologists have long argued that people need a clear sense of their intellectual abilities and liabilities in order to develop their academic potential. Accurate answers to questions such as Which talents should I develop? Which should I abandon? and Am I smart enough to go to college? can help people set appropriate goals, spend their time and efforts wisely, and avoid being embarrassed or demoralized by failures.

But research makes clear that some groups of people, such as African Americans, are at a disadvantage in this development, because they experience chronic attributional ambiguity, which is an uncertainty about whether their academic accomplishments truly reflect their abilities, or whether they were given an easy ride because teachers had lower expectations. This uncertainty may be the result of negative stereotypes (i.e. "blacks are less intelligent"). While this uncertainty alleviates the pain of receiving negative feedback ("my work is fine, but my teacher is prejudiced"), it could eventually leave people unclear about their competence.

In one study, black and white participants took a verbal test and indicated the probability that each answer was correct. The results indicate that stereotype-vulnerable black participants predicted their abilities less accurately than other participants. In a second study, participants completed measures of self-efficacy twice daily for eight days. In line with the first study's results, the efficacy of stereotype-vulnerable blacks fluctuated more frequently and more extremely than that of other participants.

"Social scientists have long been puzzled about why African American students seem to maintain high aspirations, even in cases where their own past performances make these aspirations unwarranted," Aronson said. "These studies are important in that they tie this 'unrealistic optimism' to students' expectations of prejudice -- and to actual prejudices, as well -- that they encounter." The researchers conclude that the study demonstrates the fragility of academic perceptions, creating a roller-coaster ride of self-confidence for stereotype-vulnerable students.
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For more information, contact Aronson at joshua.aronson@nyu.edu. A full copy of the article is available at the APS Media Center at www.psychologicalscience.org/media.

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.

Association for Psychological Science

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