The Psychology of Minority Students

A major public policy concern is the well known fact that many minority students under-achieve scholastically. The roots of the discrepancy in performance of some minorities and their white counterparts has been attributed to many causes, such as socioeconomic disparities and poor school systems in minority communities. Many of the explanations, however, focus on the students’ environment, and less attention is paid to the psychology of being a minority student in America. Recent provocative research in social psychology, however, suggests that a large portion of academic performance differences may reflect minority students’ representations of stereotypes  surrounding their racial and ethnic identities.

Any social stereotype, such as ‘nerd,’ ‘liberal,’ or ‘black male’ connote specific mental images of prototypical behavior fitting the stereotype. Researchers suggest that when a member of a stereotyped group thinks of a stereotype related to their group, thinking of the stereotype will likely affect their behavior. “Stereotype threat” is a term used to represent the predicament in which a person must perform in a domain for which there is a negative stereotype of a social group to which they belong.

Intrigued by the discrepancy in academic performance between African American and white students, Prof. Claude Steele has researched test performance among students of these populations in a laboratory setting. In an initial experiment, Steele had African American and white Stanford University undergraduates complete a standardized test. Although the African American and white participants were pre-selected to be matched on intellectual ability, the African American students performed significantly worse than their white counterparts on the test. Next, Steele brought in another group of intellectually matched African-American and white Stanford undergraduates to the lab. This time, the participants completed the same test, but were instructed that the study was interested in how people reason, and they were not told that the content of the test came from a standardized achievement test. In this condition, the participants performed comparably. Finally, a third group of African-American and white Stanford undergraduates were instructed, just as the first group, that the test was  a standardized achievement test. This time, however, participants subsequently answered a ‘word completion’ task, in which the were given only a few letters and asked to create a word. The African-American participants produced significantly more race-related words than the white students, suggesting that racial stereotypes were indeed primed in them, which may have been what was driving the observed differences.

Subsequent research has confirmed these early findings that stereotype threats surrounding academic performance may influence minorities’ standardized testing. For example, when minority group membership is made salient (i.e. filling out a questionnaire about racial or ethnic identity) subsequent performance on academic achievement tests is significantly lowered compared to when group identity is not  primed. Interestingly, the direction of these results are not the same for all minorities. That is, when Asian American students are primed of their minority identity, their performance on academic tasks improves. Researchers suggest that this is because there is a positive stereotype regarding Asian American academic achievement.

This body of research not only sheds interesting insights on the psychology of minority students,  but also suggests that standardized testing procedures may slate minority students to perform in certain ways. Prior to completing any major standardized academic test, such as the SAT or GRE, students complete a demographics questionnaire. It is likely that answering questions about racial, ethnic, or even socioeconomic or gender identity may negatively influence students’ performance on test questions. And yet, given the highly replicable and robust findings in the stereotype threat literature, these procedures persist.


Croizet, J., & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the Concept of Stereotype Threat to Social Class: The Intellectual Underperformance of Students from Low Socioeconomic Backgrounds Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24 (6), 588-594 DOI: 10.1177/0146167298246003

Shih, M., Pittinsky, T., Ambady, N. Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science: Research Report, 10(1), 80-83.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the test performance of academically successful African Americans. In C. Jencks & M. Phillips (Eds.), Black-White test score gap. Brookings Institution Press.

Meghan Meyer, PhD (c)

Meghan Meyer, PhD candidate, studies social cognitive neuroscience at University of California-Los Angeles. Prior to joining UCLA, she worked on behavioral and brain imaging studies in the Stanford University Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago, and completed her M.A. in cognitive science, with a specialty in cognitive neuroscience, from Ecole Normale Superieur, in Paris, France. When she is not in the lab designing studies and analyzing data, she enjoys writing about scientific findings and their broader impact for general audiences.
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