Study Supports Theory that Racial Stigma Affects People’s Performance in Crucial Ways

Students who felt they were being racially stereotyped were more likely to show difficulty in assessing their academic skills and performance than those who hadn’t felt the stigma, according to New York University research. In a series of two studies sampling dozens of African American students attending NYU, a correlation was made between the amount of prejudice a participant perceived and a lack of self-knowledge.

“The Ups and Downs of Attributional Ambiguity: Stereotype Vulnerability and the Academic Self-Knowledge of African American College Students” study is funded by the National Science Foundation and is published in the December issue of Psychological Science.

“Social scientists have long been puzzled about why African American students seem to maintain high aspirations, even in cases where their own past performances make these aspirations unwarranted. These studies are important in that they tie this “unrealistic optimism” to students’ expectations of prejudice—and to actual prejudices, as well— that they encounter,” said Joshua Aronson, NYU applied psychology professor who co-wrote the study with Michael Inzlicht, assistant professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Both researchers conclude that the study demonstrates the fragility of academic perceptions, creating a roller-coaster ride of self-confidence for stereotype-vulnerable students.

In one of the studies, the researchers measured students’ confidence levels over a period of a week. Black students with high levels of stereotype vulnerability expressed both extreme overconfidence and extreme underconfidence, depending on when their confidence was measured. Black students who weren’t stereotype vulnerable did not differ in the stability of the confidence from the white students in the study, which the researchers attribute to the fact that accurate academic self-knowledge helps people maintain stable confidence in their abilities.

According to previous research, people’s self-views and assessments of their strengths and weaknesses are critical in the pursuit of future opportunities. “You have to know where you stand so you know what goals to set and can decide what to pursue,” said Inzlicht, former postdoctoral research scientist from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. “People who know themselves are anchored, but the stereotype vulnerable group was off the charts – they were miscalibrated with reality and couldn’t properly assess their performance on these tests.”

While this study focuses on African Americans, Aronson and Inzlicht say the theory could be applied to any group feeling stereotype vulnerability. “Anyone who experiences stereotype vulnerability may be robbed of opportunities to learn from feedback and performance, and thus from developing a clear and stable academic self-concept,” said Aronson.

This research adds to the body of work on stereotype threat, a performance-debilitating anxiety about conforming to stereotypes individuals believe others have about them when taking standardized tests. Stanford University Psychology Professor Claude Steele and Aronson introduced the concept in 1995. Data from that study suggested that achievement gaps on standardized tests and academic performance may be partly due to stereotypes that impugn the intellectual abilities of black, Hispanic, and low-income students.

For more information or to request a copy of the study, contact Jennifer Zwiebel, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, Steinhardt School of Education at 212.998.6797 or

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