The Dumb Jock Stereotype Can Be a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

April 24, 2014

By Annie Murphy Paul

Social scientists know that in research studies, minority and female students appear to be vulnerable to the phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Aware that the group to which they belong is often stereotyped as intellectually inferior, their anxiety that a poor showing on a test will confirm the stereotype actually depresses their performance on the test, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, new research suggests that stereotype threat is experienced by student-athletes, too. Conscious that they may be regarded by professors or other students as “dumb jocks,” they do less well on a challenging test when they’re reminded of their student-athlete identity beforehand.

The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Economic Inquiry, was conducted by Prof. Thomas Dee of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Professor Dee gave a group of undergraduates — some athletes and some not — a test made up of questions from the Graduate Record Examination (G.R.E.), the admissions test for graduate school. Just before tackling the questions from the G.R.E., the students completed a questionnaire that asked whether they belonged to a sports team, what sport they played and whether they had experienced scheduling conflicts between athletics and academic activities like course meetings and laboratory sessions. (A control group received no questions about athletics, instead answering questions about the dining services on campus.)