October 21, 2012

John List on the virtual nonexistence of "stereotype threat"

The concept of "stereotype threat" is a vastly popular explanation for The Gap. In 2004, I argued that the most plausible explanation for studies finding that if you tell a Designated Victim Group that they are expected to score lower on a low-stakes test requiring mental effort in return for no reward, they will indeed score lower:
Of course, to me as a former marketing executive, there's an obvious alternative explanation of [Claude] Steele's findings: the students figured out what this prominent professor wanted to see, and, being nice kids, they delivered the results he longed for. This happens all the time in market research. After all, this was just a meaningless little test, unlike a real SAT where the students would all want to do as well as possible.

However, an even more cynical interpretation has been floating around on the fringes of public discourse for a number of years: publication bias. Studies that find stereotype threat get published, while studies that don't don't: the File Drawer Effect.

From an interview with John List, Homer J. Livingston professor of economics at the U. of Chicago:
RF:  Your paper with Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt came to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion about whether stereotype threat exists. But do you have a hunch regarding the answer to that question based on the results of your experiment? 
List: I believe in priming. Psychologists have shown us the power of priming, and stereotype threat is an interesting type of priming. Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford, popularized the term stereotype threat. He had people taking a math exam, for example, jot down whether they were male or female on top of their exams, and he found that when you wrote down that you were female, you performed less well than if you did not write down that you were female. They call this the stereotype threat. My first instinct was that effect probably does happen, but you could use incentives to make it go away. And what I mean by that is, if the test is important enough or if you overlaid monetary incentives on that test, then the stereotype threat would largely disappear, or become economically irrelevant.  
So we designed the experiment to test that, and we found that we could not even induce stereotype threat. We did everything we could to try to get it. We announced to them, “Women do not perform as well as men on this test and we want you now to put your gender on the top of the test.”  And other social scientists would say, that’s crazy — if you do that, you will get stereotype threat every time. But we still didn’t get it. What that led me to believe is that, while I think that priming works, I think that stereotype threat has a lot of important boundaries that severely limit its generalizability. I think what has happened is, a few people found this result early on and now there’s publication bias. But when you talk behind the scenes to people in the profession, they have a hard time finding it. So what do they do in that case? A lot of people just shelve that experiment; they say it must be wrong because there are 10 papers in the literature that find it. Well, if there have been 200 studies that try to find it, 10 should find it, right? 
This is a Type II error but people still believe in the theory of stereotype threat. I think that there are a lot of reasons why it does not occur. So while I believe in priming, I am not convinced that stereotype threat is important.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's the polite explanation. The explanation that he's not giving, but that he is hinting at pretty heavily, is that the original stereotype threat experiments are the product of outright fraud.

Anonymous said...

The data regarding stereotype threat is also widely misinterpreted. Consider the following graph, which depicts the results from one of the earliest studies designed to assess stereotype threat:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Stereotype_threat_bw.jpg

What's important to note is that THOSE SCORES HAVE BEEN ADJUSTED ON THE BASIS OF SAT SCORES. That is, if the bars are even it means that blacks were outscored by whites by the same amount we would expect them to be outscored by whites on the basis of their lower SAT scores. So, in the case without stereotype threat, we see nearly the same gap that was seen on the SAT. And in the case with stereotype threat, well, the researchers have discovered a way to make the gap even larger.

Of course, every now and then some media idiot with wishful thinking in his brain sees the bars as even and concludes that stereotype threat alone accounts for the existence and magnitude of the gap.

rightsaidfred said...

Politics trump science.

paradigmo said...

These studies are in a way like social psychologists doing experiments on themselves, similar to that of Solomon Asch. You have some big shot like Steele coming up with a result that is in line with the liberal consensus in this field.

Anyone finding a contradictory result would be going against the authority of Steele, their colleagues, and in 95 percent of the time their own political conviction.


Konrad said...

Off Topic: New Mencius Moldbug video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZluMysK2B1E

Snippet said...

I was disappointed to discover Judith Harris of "The Nurture Assumption" fame had bought into Stereotype Threat as an explanation for The Gap. She actually addresses it in "No Two Alike." The follow up to TNA. Normally, she has a lazer-like focus on facts and is fearless about teasing out information from them, but this (ahem, cough couch) issue (cough!) seems to bring out the obfuscator in almost everyone.

Snippet said...

If there's a double-post, sorry. I can't tell if a message has gone through...

Peter said...

Perhaps iSteve readers can be of some help with this intriguing question. A fedora-wearing suspect has been arrested for robbing and raping* women at three Asian massage parlors in New York. He can be seen quite clearly in these surveillance camera views.

The suspect's name is, of all things, "Zhordrack Blodywon." I cannot figure out what sort of name that is, Google is no help, and as you'll note in the camera views he looks as if he could be from any number of nationalities.

Any ideas?

* = admittedly, the idea of raping a woman at a massage parlor is semi-ludicrous

nsam said...

Interesting interview. One thing strikes me: List started out at a no-name university and made it. But it is an implausible path for the majority who do make it to the very top. I predict that such outliers are almost always males and it can be confirmed by tabulating graduating schools for academics in top universities.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Stereotype Threat just another example from the decay-inducing cornucopia of post-Christian belief in superstition, magic, moonbeams and garlic bread?

cipher

Grumpy Old Man said...

This "stereotype threat" thing was always obvious chaff to distract from reality. The Ptolemaic epicycles of social psychology.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hasn't it been the opposite belief that permeates our literature and cultural icons, from Disney movies to GrrlPower, that if you tell someone they can't do something they try all the harder to prove you wrong?

How do people reconcile these opposite beliefs in their heads?

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to 'bloody-mindedness' (a fine old English phrase)?
- Bloody-mindedness means the mental toughness that is displayed when individuals deliberately want to prove their critics wrong, toughness, stubborness, call it what you will, bloody-mindedness is surely a more common and natural human response than 'stereotype threat'.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know how Steele formed his sample set.

There are segments of universities who tend to discount "Western linear thinking," and even gradients of this sentiment within a given Ethnic Studies class. If the gradient skews Designated Victim Group, and the class is reminded of their relative victimhoods before testing, we can only expect differential effort along the same lines.

socks said...

I've been wondering if people who see blank slates everywhere are themselves blank slates, at least a greater than normal extent. Maybe heavy verbalist brains are much more programable than typical or mathematical brains.

Steve Sailer said...

"What's important to note is that THOSE SCORES HAVE BEEN ADJUSTED ON THE BASIS OF SAT SCORES."

Right, Steele's big accomplishment was in badgering blacks into scoring lower on a meaningless test than on the meaningful SAT. If he could badger them into scoring higher, that would be something, but persuading people to work less hard on something that doesn't do them any good doesn't seem like a titanic breakthrough.

Anonymous said...

haha, have been reading a book by a cute psychologist who keeps bringing up numerous studies about stereotype threat, priming, "omg self-esteem", "imagine there are no genders" "imagine women were better and men had to face ST" blah blah blah, till we find The File Drawer effect itself, of course not for the above mentioned societal ills but for displaying how sexism arises in neuroscience.

Also recently,

"Such tests are widely used in psychology, and Kahneman counts himself as a “general believer” in priming effects. But in his e-mail, seen by Nature, he writes that there is a “train wreck looming” for the field, due to a “storm of doubt” about the robustness of priming results.
Under fire

This scepticism has been fed by failed attempts to replicate classic priming studies, increasing concerns about replicability in psychology more broadly (see 'Bad Copy'), and the exposure of fraudulent social psychologists such as Diederik Stapel, Dirk Smeesters and Lawrence Sanna, who used priming techniques in their work."

Marlowe said...

Does persistently telling white people about their racist eviltude qualify as 'stereotype threat'?

elvisd said...

Psychology is a field in search of a search topic. Here's the "listening to rock music makes you racist" study from earlier this year. I just grew up thinking that it'd make you a devil worshiper:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2110959/Does-listening-rock-make-racist-Five-minutes-Bruce-Springsteen-makes-students-favour-white-people-others.html

Cail Corishev said...

"Hasn't it been the opposite belief that permeates our literature and cultural icons, from Disney movies to GrrlPower, that if you tell someone they can't do something they try all the harder to prove you wrong?

"How do people reconcile these opposite beliefs in their heads?"


Easy. Those stories of overcoming adversity are about individuals. Stereotype threat allegedly shows up in groups. As long as you don't let yourself think about the fact that groups are made up of individuals -- something that liberals are well trained to ignore -- you'll never notice the contradiction.

Anonymous said...

"I was disappointed to discover Judith Harris of "The Nurture Assumption" fame had bought into Stereotype Threat as an explanation for The Gap."

Indeed. I was also quite surprised by that.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing what kind of mental gyrations people will go through to avoid having to acknowledge that Africans are less intelligent than Europeans and Asians. Don't they believe in evolution? They need to read Rushton (may he rest in peace).

Anonymous said...

Isn't Stereotype Threat just another example from the decay-inducing cornucopia of post-Christian belief in superstition, magic, moonbeams and garlic bread?

Evolution, relativity, quantum physics, cognitive neuropsychology?

Anonymous said...

I believe Jensen in "The g-Factor" suggested ST was an example of the Yerkes-Dodson law in action, in which high levels of arousal can drive down test scores.

http://www.europeanamericansunited.org/school1/Eugenics/Jensen/jen12.htm

Anonymous said...

What about Fear of Acting White? Shouldnt they be researching that next?

Silver said...

It is amazing what kind of mental gyrations people will go through to avoid having to acknowledge that Africans are less intelligent than Europeans and Asians. Don't they believe in evolution? They need to read Rushton (may he rest in peace).

You're assuming they're not convinced of the truth of racial differences. That's a naive assumption. Much of the time they take the position they do not because they don't believe in racial differences but because they do. They're just worried and frightened by what the implications of the truth about race seeping out might be so they resort to obfuscation and lies as a stopgap measure until they can come up with some way of mitigating those implications. It's all rather needless imo, but it's another thing to convince them of that.

Anonymous said...

You're assuming they're not convinced of the truth of racial differences. That's a naive assumption. Much of the time they take the position they do not because they don't believe in racial differences but because they do. They're just worried and frightened by what the implications of the truth about race seeping out might be so they resort to obfuscation and lies as a stopgap measure until they can come up with some way of mitigating those implications. It's all rather needless imo, but it's another thing to convince them of that.

I'm sure that certain leftists do believe in racial differences. For them, evolution-denialism is just a weapon they put in service of their who/whom agenda. OTO a lot of leftists really are evolution-denialists. For the true denialists, its a way to demonstrate their lefist-cred to the other leftists, and its a case of egotism. They can't imagine that someone might be unlike them. To them a black gangbanger in prison for murder is just a white guy with black skin who, owing to circumstance, turned out differently.

This expectation of sameness extends to an expectation of ideological agreement from everyone else which then morphs into hatred when the expectation isn't met, hence blasphemy/hate-speech laws. A lot of crusading leftism from the dawn of time has had that same self-infatuated mentality. Ironically the speakers of "hate-speech/blasphemy" aren't necessarily communicating any hatred or blaspheming for the sake of blaspheming. Hate speech could be defined as speech that evokes hatred in leftists.

Gene Berman said...

Rape at a massage parlor? Mightn't
that just be a case of shoplifting?

Snippet said...

>>> haha, have been reading a book by a cute psychologist who keeps bringing up numerous studies about stereotype threat, <<< Wow. I checked out her work. She got angry at gender stereotypes in a book she read as a girl, and dedicated her life to "studying" this sort of thing. Her motivation to become a "scientist" was intensely emotional, and her motivation is to protect and nurture a preconcieved notion, as if it were a baby. How cute.

Anonymous said...

"Off Topic: New Mencius Moldbug video:"

Haven't had time to watch it yet, but he's exactly what I'd expect an HBD blogger to look like. Not that that's good or bad.

Polymath said...

My son took the PSAT two days ago. The forms the kids filled out included demographic questions (gender, race, religion), which were unproblematic because the last two were optional and they were going to be used only in statistical aggregates. However, there was also a question asking black students if they wanted to participate in some program or organization for black scholars. I thought it was unfair to ask this question which obviously had individualized consequences, because it would create more stress for the black students.