Wired Magazine on Identity Threat and Working Memory

This year’s Best American Sportswriting collection features a fascinating article from Wired magazine about the psychology behind the phenomenon of “choking” in sports, when an athlete seizes up in a high-pressure situation.

The article contains a discussion of something that psychologists refer to as “stereotype threat” or “identity threat,” and its counterpart, “identity lift.”  In short, these terms refer to the fact that there appears to be some scientifically quantifiable justification behind the old adage “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”  The article talks about a number of studies in which test subjects performed worse at certain tasks after being reminded of negative stereotypes associated with a group of which the subject was a member.

[I]n 1999, Jeff Stone, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona, asked both white and black golfers to play a putting game framed as a test of either “sports intelligence” or “natural athletic ability.” The results still astonish: Among the golfers considering the putting game a test of “natural athletic ability,” blacks did better than usual and whites did worse. Among those framing it as a sort of sports intelligence test, whites did better and blacks worse.

This result, replicated many times since, eerily echoes the GRE test-score plunge that Steele and Aronson induced in 1995. Yet that white golfers suffered a hit while being tested for “natural athletic ability” raises an intriguing question: If white male golfers in Arizona can be so easily derailed by an unflattering stereotype, who on earth is exempt from stereotype threat?

No one. Since those first studies, Stone, Beilock, and others have produced, with almost laughable ease, absurdly task- and stereotype-specific effects in groups of every sort. For instance, if you ask white men to jump both before and after calling the jumping test a measure of “natural athletic ability,” they will jump significantly less high after the threat. White male engineers, meanwhile, will ace a math test if it’s presented as a test of gender-based or innate math abilities — but tell them they’re being compared with Asian male engineers, and they’ll choke badly.

“We haven’t found anyone,” says Beilock, “that we can’t screw up by suggesting that some group they’re a member of is bad at something.”

Stereotype threat, it turns out, is a surprisingly democratic dynamic. Obviously stereotypes such as bigotry and sexism are not applied equitably. But no one is immune to the mechanism that stereotype threat applies. For this reason, some psychologists are starting to call it “identity threat.” As Jeff Stone put it, “We all have multiple identities, and they can all be discriminated against. It’s the identities we carry that make us vulnerable here.”

This strikes me as being significant for teachers to think about, and particularly for teachers of young women, who (as Jen Thayer emphasizes with the TBIO discussions) are bombarded with confusing and often contradictory cultural messages about who society expects them to be.  In addition, the issue of “identity threat” seems to me to connect to the questions of identity that we look at and discuss in the works we read in  eighth-grade English — in fact, “identity” is one of the central themes of the whole course.

With all of that in mind, I loved this paragraph from the article:

“You can’t dictate your genes,” says Stone. “But among the many identities you have, you can choose which to operate from.” . . . You can wallow in your most negative identity — the slow one, the overthinker, the one who doesn’t care — or you can foreground another identity, the one who is ready, the one who knows what’s coming, the one who calmly attacks the problem.

Here’s a link to the article: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/the-tight-collar-the-new-science-of-choking/all/1

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One thought on “Wired Magazine on Identity Threat and Working Memory

  1. It’s amazing that the human psyche can have such a powerful effect on performance. What a great reminder of the importance of creating an environment where the girls are encouraged and shown positive examples of what girls and women are doing. Focusing on the positive work of women should be a feature of our current events program, which people they study in history class, the literature the girls read, etc. Thankfully, I think we’re already doing this on many fronts. This will continue to be an uphill battle as girls are bombarded with images of female celebrities who are mostly concerned with their appearance rather than their substance.

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