NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Stereotype Threat" Doesn't Fit the Pattern

April 19, 2004

Contrary to reports promulgated in the media, people do badly on tests not because of a fear of failure, but rather because they just don't know the right answers.

Some psychologists purport black test-takers are faring poorly because they are afraid the results will be used to confirm negative views about their racial group's abilities. The wobbly foundation for these claims rests on a 1995 study which found black students, when told their results would be used to assessed their group's intellectual ability, did worse on experimental exams than black students who were not told this. White students tested in this way performed equally well.

Though the media has been quick to champion these results, University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Amy Wax says the belief that "stereotype threat" is the chief cause of low test scores among blacks is without foundation. In addition to the study's grave methodological flaws, Professor Wax says the results are misleading:

  • Though the threat warnings widened the gap between black and white student scores somewhat, removing the threat did not close or even narrow the actual scores on the experimental test.
  • Subsequent studies by the original authors or other researchers show modest or no racial stereotype threat effect at all.
  • Studies finding a significant anxiety of failure effect among blacks do not show that this is responsible for most of the performance gap.

Nonetheless, the claims have gained popularity, adds Professor Wax, because people desperately want a quick fix and to believe underachievement comes from without, rather than within. Social causes for differences in academic performance, such as family stability, marriage rates, paternal involvement, habits, and values, are resisted because they require self-scrutiny and behavioral change, says Wax.

Source: Amy L. Wax, "The Threat in the Air," Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2004.

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