Out of Thin Air, Part I

The threat of unspoken expectations.

Posted Sep 13, 2010

It's back to school time on college campuses everywhere, which means you can spot the freshmen coming from a mile away. They're the wide-eyed ones sneaking looks at the campus map, wearing school sweatshirts that look just a bit too crisp and new, traveling in packs of 10 or more because–much like wolves hunting in the wild–they sense that there's safety in numbers.

They're the ones with a million different thoughts running through their minds when you see them at orientation, in advising meetings, at the library, and during the first week of classes: How should I set up my schedule? How do I address my professors? Where do I buy my textbooks? Is this course going to be what I expect? How am I going to do in college? Do I even belong here?

During times of transition like this one, it can be hard to tune out these concerns and self-doubts to focus on the tasks at hand. Learning to do so is one of the keys to succeeding in college or any new endeavor. But for some individuals, this challenge is even more daunting because the distracting whispers are even louder.

Like the woman in the male-dominated engineering course.

Or the student of color in the nearly-all-White seminar.

There's added psychological burden to being in the minority or standing out from the crowd. So we learn from research on "solo status," or the experience of being the only person of a particular demographic present in a larger group. Data suggest that being the sole woman or person of color in a setting–or, for that matter, being the only man or the only White person–can be mentally taxing. You feel like everybody else's eyes are on you; you feel pressure to perform in order to represent your group well.

But there's even more to it than that. As I've blogged about before, expectation has a dramatic impact on our daily social life. It shapes the conclusions we jump to regarding the behavior of others. It determines how we respond to feedback and bounce back from failure. It actually changes the way people around us behave.

The expectations that we think others hold about us make a big difference as well. They can lift us up. And they can weigh us down.

Consider the following study run at Stanford over a decade ago. Students (some White, some Black) were paid to take a 30-minute, SAT-like verbal test. Before starting the test, they were given a "personal information" questionnaire. All students were asked to note their age, year in school, academic major, and number of siblings. But for half of the test-takers, an additional question was included: they were asked to report their race before starting the verbal test. The other half weren't asked about race at all.

This one little difference had a big, big impact.

Among students who weren't asked about race, no statistically meaningful difference was found between the verbal test performance of Whites and Blacks. In fact, controlling for their actual, high-school SAT scores (using those previous scores as a covariate, for those of you statistical junkies out there), if anything, the Black students actually outperformed White students by a tiny amount. Though, again, in statistical terms, there was no reliable racial difference in average performance.

But among those students who had been asked to report their race, a reliable difference emerged. Suddenly, White students outperformed their Black counterparts, and by a healthy margin. Even though they took the same test–the very same test that produced no group differences otherwise–the average White student's score was now more than twice as high as the average Black student's.

What happened? According to the study's authors, Claude Steele (now Provost at Columbia University) and Joshua Aronson (now a psychologist at NYU), the performance of Black students was undermined by their concerns about stereotypes–by the worry that they might confirm the negative expectations that others hold about Black students. Simply listing race on the testing form was enough to make them wonder whether their performance would be viewed through that racial lens.

Steele and Aronson labeled this phenomenon stereotype threat. And they suggested (and subsequently demonstrated) that it isn't limited to African-American test-takers or even to stereotypes about race. Anytime you find yourself in a situation in which you're worried that others might hold negative expectations about "people like you," that can be enough to alter and impair your performance.

In other words, the threat of stereotypes isn't only present when other people endorse or articulate them. No, stereotypes also pose risks when they're just out there in the ether, lingering unspoken in the social air around us. Out of thin air, stereotypes have the power to shape our behavior.

So back to our college freshmen (or anyone else stepping into new environs): additional thoughts about fulfilling the stereotypes others hold about them become just one more set of concerns buzzing around, one more source of pressure complicating the effort to hunker down and think straight. 

How widespread is this problem, you might ask?  What, if anything, can be done about it?

Good questions.  So good, in fact, that it'll take another post to address them.



Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below: