Annie Murphy Paul writes: We’ve all been there: you feel especially smart and funny when talking to a particular person, only to feel hopelessly unintelligent and inarticulate in the presence of another.
You’re not imagining things. Experiments show that when people report feeling comfortable with a conversational partner, they are judged by those partners and by observers as actually being more witty.
It’s just one example of the powerful influence that social factors can have on intelligence. As parents, teachers and students settle into the school year, this work should prompt us to think about intelligence not as a “lump of something that’s in our heads,” as the psychologist Joshua Aronson puts it, but as “a transaction among people.”
Mr. Aronson, an associate professor at New York University, has been a leader in investigating the effects of social forces on academic achievement. Along with the psychologist Claude Steele, he identified the phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” Members of groups believed to be academically inferior — African-American and Latino students enrolled in college, or female students in math and science courses — score much lower on tests when reminded beforehand of their race or gender.
The pair’s experiments in the 1990s, and the dozens of studies by other researchers that followed, concluded that the performance of these students suffered because they were worried about confirming negative stereotypes about their group.
In a 1995 article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Professors Steele and Aronson found that black students performed comparably with white students when told that the test they were taking was “a laboratory problem-solving task.” Black students scored much lower, however, when they were instructed that the test was meant to measure their intellectual ability. In effect, the prospect of social evaluation suppressed these students’ intelligence.
Minorities aren’t the only ones vulnerable to stereotype threat. We all are. A group of people notably confident about their mathematical abilities — white male math and engineering majors who received high scores on the math portion of the SAT — did worse on a math test when told that the experiment was intended to investigate “why Asians appear to outperform other students on tests of math ability.” [Continue reading…]