My hero of the week: social psychologist Professor Claude Steele of Stanford University, for his work on stereotype threat. Through carefully controlled lab experiments, Steele and coworkers have shown that people tend to underperform when they fear that their performance might reflect badly on the larger group with whom they identify. So, for example, when a group of math students take a very difficult math test, the female students may worry that their poor performance would be interpreted as evidence that women have less mathematical ability then men. Just worrying about this possibility deflates their scores. When that worry is eliminated, their scores equal men’s. In the experiments, the worry can be removed by telling all of the women and men that on the particular test they are taking, it is well known that women and men perform equally.
Stereotype threat can apply to all people– not just women and minorities– in any situation where someone feels that people "like them" suffer from a negative stereotype for the activity at hand. For example, says Steele, a white person talking to a black person about race is likely to worry that he or she might be seen as racist, and will be more likely to make conversational blunders as a result. Ironically, stereotype threat affects people most when they really care about doing well at what they are doing– e.g. not being racist, or acing at math tests.