An article in Scientific American describes ‘stereotype threat‘ – an effect where, if a person is challenged in an area they are concerned about, such as intellectual ability, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype can impair performance.
The findings have largely been uncovered by psychologist Claude Steele, who found that the way a test is framed can significantly affect performance.
He was particularly motivated by the fact that black students did much worse at college, despite having achieved equal grades at school, and wondered if some black students were suffering impaired performance because of worries about their own abilities.
Steele wondered if the [black] Michigan students suffered from a kind of self-image threat, so with colleagues Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer, he designed a series of studies. They gave sophomores matched by SAT scores a frustrating section of the Graduate Record Examination. When first told that the test evaluated verbal ability, the black students scored a full standard deviation lower on average. But when the researchers described it as a study of problem-solving techniques unimportant to academic achievement, the scores for blacks leaped to the same level as those for whites.
Similar findings have been found for female students taking maths tests and even with white golfers taking tests of “natural athletic ability”.