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2011 Spring Issue 5 (May 6, 2011)

NYU psychology professor tackles achievement gap by challenging racial, gender stereotypes

May 6, 2011
By Jonathan Lin

Associate Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU Joshua Aronson delivered a talk titled “Stereotype Threat and the Nature and Nurture of Intelligence” at the April 29 Convocation. He focused on the achievement gap between whites and blacks in the United States, arguing that instead of the figures of the gap,  it is “what people can and do become” that should occupy our attention.  Aronson argued that there is a tendency to disregard the poor performance of racial minorities as a result of genetics or cultural differences. Aronson discussed his research findings on the psychology of stigma with regards to academic performance, revealing that at infancy “there is equal intelligence between blacks and whites; the gap develops and widens at the K-12 level.” He argued that intelligence “is both fragile and malleable,” and is thus highly affected by the surrounding environment, not genetics or culture.

Aronson pointed to the ample evidence he had for what he called “stereotype threat,” showing the importance of social, interpersonal chemistry and how it strongly affects intelligence. Studies done by Baumeister in 2002 and Sharkey in 2009 show that threatened personal safety and belongingness respectively have negative effects on measurable intelligence and academic performance. In addition, he maintained that the apprehension people feel from “awareness of a negative stereotype” also reinforced this finding.

He argued that “difference in mindset” truly matters when concerning academic performance, revealing the results of a laboratory experiment he created: two groups of black and white students took the same test, only one group was told that the test was not measuring their academic abilities, while the other was told that the test had great impact on their future. The latter group’s performance noticeably suffered, especially that of the racial minority. Aronson reinforced the power of stereotype threat with another experiment that focused on the stakes of exams: he found that “high stakes mattered big time for racial minorities. He also discovered results that difference in gender had on academic performance, illustrating an experiment where women taking mathematics exams did considerably poorer when their stereotypically smarter male counterparts were in the same room. To Aronson this highlighted how a mere reminder of the stereotype threat reinforced this social stigma and greatly affected performance, proving that intelligence is dependent “on the quality of the environment.” 

In conclusion, Aronson emphasized that improvement depended on changing the stereotype mindset of society. He noted that currently the “salience of identity” was very influential in affecting academic performance, and suggested a mindset that focused on growth and development of the individual, where the stereotype threat could be taken and “turned into something positive.” Aronson did stress the complexity of the achievement gap, stating that “recently we’ve been listening to some very simple answers, which are wrong.” He cautioned about the suspect nature of simple solutions, illustrating that currently the general reaction to failing students “is to fire teachers.” But he pointed out that even having the best teacher cannot guarantee positive results, because the “dynamics of the classroom” are enormously significant to the academic performance of students in the United States.

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