causes of human rights violations, discrimination and hate, education, equality, philosophy, poverty

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (18): Stereotype Threat and Michel Foucault

There’s an interesting phenomenon called the stereotype threat, or, in other words, the threat of stereotypes about one’s capacity to succeed at something: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. (Some say that this is a type of confirmation bias, a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their existing preconceptions – they selectively collect new evidence, interpret evidence in a biased way or selectively recall information from memory. But I’m not convinced).

A typical example of stereotype threat manifests itself when a categorical group is told or shown that their group’s performance is worse than other groups before giving them a test; the test results are often abnormally lower than for control groups. For example, on a mathematics test, if you remind a group of girls that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it is likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have had they not been told. (source)

Here’s another example:

Stereotype threat

(source)

[Irwin] Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ test, if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks. Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores. (source)

Indeed, that could be one explanation of the stereotype threat. Or it could simply be that people score worse because they are anxious about confirming the stereotype, and that this anxiety provokes stress because of the will to do well and prove that the prejudice is wrong. Ironically, they score worse: this anxiety and stress makes them less able to perform at normal levels. Or it could be something more sinister: something like internalization of oppression. People who suffered prejudice for centuries can perhaps convince themselves of their group’s inferiority. When this inferiority is made explicit beforehand, they are reminded of it, and somehow their recollected feelings of inferiority tweak their performance.

So inferior test results – compared to control groups who haven’t been exposed to explicit stereotypes before the test – can be caused by

  • a lack of motivation to disprove entrenched and difficult to change prejudices
  • stress and anxiety, or
  • recollected feelings of inferiority.

Or perhaps something else I’m not thinking of at the moment.

Some say that this is all crap, and an extreme example of the file drawer effect or publication bias: those studies that find positive results are more likely to be published, the others stay in the file drawer. I don’t know. I do think it’s true that whatever the reality of the stereotype threat, talk about it can have perverse effects: differences in test scores are considered to be wholly explained by the threat, and real education discrimination or differences in economic opportunities are removed from the picture. In that way, the stereotype threat functions as a solidifier of prejudice and stereotype, quite the opposite of what was intended.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Assuming the threat is real, Michel Foucault comes to mind. Foucault wrote about power and the different ways it operates. Rather than just force or the threat of force, he found “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving subjugation”. If you can convince people of their own inferiority you don’t have to do anything else. They will take themselves down. Or at least you may be able to convince people that it’s useless to struggle against prejudice because it’s so entrenched that you may as well adapt your behavior and confirm it. Also, Foucault’s claim that “power is everywhere” can be used here: power over people is even in their own minds. For Foucault,

power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. … Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge. Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable “truths”, come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such “truths” becomes normalized. (source)

The stereotype threat is a good example of a system that makes people behave in other ways, and of a belief system (based on prejudice) that becomes common knowledge, even among those targeted by the prejudice. Even they see it as unthinkable that their own inferiority is prejudice rather than knowledge.

More on prejudice, stereotypes, racism, gender discrimination, and Foucault.

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7 thoughts on “The Causes of Human Rights Violations (18): Stereotype Threat and Michel Foucault

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