Students who feel stereotyped fail to perform

UC SANTA BARBARA (US) — The threat of a negative stereotype increases mind-wandering, which in turn can lead to a drop in performance, new research shows.

“Our ongoing efforts are aimed at revealing the causes, characteristics, and consequences of mind-wandering,” says Michael Mrazek, a doctoral student of psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Our research shows that part of the reason stereotype threat can impair performance is because it leads to distraction by thoughts completely unrelated to the task. This provides us with not only a richer understanding of stereotype threat itself, but also new insight into how its effects might be avoided.”


Stereotype threat occurs when members of a stereotyped group are overanxious about confirming the bias against them, and consequently under perform in tasks and activities ranging from athletic events to aptitude tests, says Jason Chin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia.

“While there have been many studies showing this effect, there are considerably fewer that demonstrate how exactly this ambiguous ‘threat’ affects complex behaviors, such as test-taking,” Chin says.

The new research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests strategies such as mindful breathing could be an effective way to relieve the burden of stereotype threat, even despite lingering prejudice.

Another strategy that uses an algorithm to predict mind-wandering in real time, based on participants’ reaction times, and alerts them accordingly may also be helpful.

While the role of mind-wandering in disrupting performance is strongly established, less is known about how social factors influence mind-wandering. The new findings help conceptualize which individuals may be most susceptible to it, and under what circumstances.

“Stereotype threat may be particularly pernicious because not only are stereotyped individuals the victims, but there is also no specific perpetrator to hold accountable,” Mrazek says. “Stereotype threat works when prevalent attitudes lead someone to stand in his or her own way.”

Until recently, little progress has been made in identifying strategies to reduce mind-wandering and its associated performance impairment, according to the researchers. It is known that brief mindfulness exercises aimed at cultivating non-distraction can reduce mind-wandering and improve performance.

Researchers have launched a four-year study funded by the United States Department of Education to examine how mindfulness training and other strategies might remediate the effects of mind-wandering within educational contexts.

“The research program is examining a variety of strategies for reducing mind-wandering,” Mrazek says. “We are currently teaching a mindfulness program in two local middle schools, with plans to begin teaching in high schools within a year.

“One hope is that by integrating these strategies into local schools, we will be able to assist underserved and at-risk students in overcoming the burden of stereotype threat.”

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