Stereotype Promise

Jennifer Lee, University of California, Irvine
January 18, 2012

Jennifer LeeJennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine and a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.

In January of 2011, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Amy Chua titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” shortly before the release of her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The article and book set off a firestorm of controversy because she argued that the Eastern parenting style is superior to the Western one because it places an uncompromising value on education, reinforced by hard work, strict discipline, and practice, which in turn, produces “successful kids,” “math whizzes,” and “music prodigies.” Reducing academic achievement to Eastern culture, Chua ignores some of the advantages accorded to Asian American students in the context of U.S. schools.

Asian American students benefit from a “stereotype promise”—the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype, thereby enhancing performance. Based on my research with Min Zhou1, 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese respondents in Los Angeles described how their teachers assumed that they were smart, hard-working, and high-achieving, which affected the way that their teachers treated them, the grades they received, and their likelihood of being placed into the most competitive academic tracks, like Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors. For many students, stereotype promise exerted an independent effect, and boosted performance.

For example, Ophelia is a 23 year-old second-generation Vietnamese woman who described herself as “not very intelligent” and recalls nearly being held back in the second grade. By her account, “I wasn’t an exceptional student; I was a straight C student, whereas my other siblings, they were quicker than I was, and they were straight A students.” Despite Ophelia’s mediocre grades, she adopted a success frame that mirrored that of her high-achieving siblings and coethnics as she noted, “Most Vietnamese, or just Asian people in general, emphasize academics and want their child to become a doctor or an engineer or pharmacist.”

Despite Ophelia’s C average, she took the AP exam at the end of junior high school, and not surprisingly, failed. Nevertheless, she was placed into the AP track in high school, but once there, something “just clicked,” and Ophelia began to excel in her classes. When we asked her to explain what she meant by this, she elaborated, “I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” and also added, “I think the competition kind of increases your want to do better.” She graduated from high school with a GPA of 4.2, and was admitted into a highly competitive pharmacy program.

While Ophelia admitted that she took schoolwork more seriously and that things “just clicked,” what was lacking in her explanation is an understanding of the social psychological processes that may have enhanced her performance, which is what led me to the literature on stereotypes, and in particular, how stereotypes affect performance.

Claude Steele and his colleagues have found ample evidence of “stereotype threat” in test-taking situations—the threat or the fear of performing in a certain way that would inadvertently confirm a negative stereotype of one’s group, which, in turn, depresses performance. Through various experiments, they have shown that stereotype threat depresses the performance of high-achieving African American students on difficult verbal tests as well as accomplished female math students on difficult math tests when these tests are presented as a measure of ability. These studies have also shown that performance improves dramatically when the threat is lifted.

Building on the work of stereotype threat, Margaret Shih and her colleagues have found that Asian American female students who are strong in math performed better on a math test when they cued their ethnic identity, and performed worse when they cued their gender compared to the control group. Their point is that test performance is both malleable and susceptible to implicit cues—what they refer to as “stereotype susceptibility.”

Further developing this literature, I conceived of “stereotype promise” that focuses more broadly on the way in which positive stereotypes can enhance performance, outside of controlled test-taking environments and in real-world settings such as schools. Like stereotype threat, the relationship between stereotype promise and performance may be mediated by some of the same mechanisms—anxiety and overcompensating with excess effort—but produce the reverse outcome.

In Ophelia’s case, once she was placed in a more challenging setting, where teachers’ expectations and peer performance were elevated, she benefited from stereotype promise. Ophelia did not believe at the outset that she was academically exceptional or deserving of being in the AP track (especially because she earned straight C’s in junior high school and failed the AP exam), but once anointed as academically exceptional and deserving, the stereotype promise exerted an independent effect that encouraged her to try harder and prove that she was a good student, and ultimately enhanced her performance.

While it is impossible to know how Ophelia’s academic performance would have differed had she stayed on the school’s “regular track,” that she was given the opportunity to meet her potential attests to the advantage that Asian American students are accorded in the context of U.S. schools. This example is one of many that emerged from our research that provides a glimpse of how social psychological processes can operate in schools, and reproduce inequalities at the high end of the educational distribution.

In future research, I plan to study in what institutional contexts “stereotype promise” may emerge most strongly or not at all, and how the racial/ethnic diversity of the context may affect its emergence.


1. This project is based on 140 in-depth interviews with 1.5- and second-generation Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican adults randomly drawn from the survey of Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles (IIMMLA). The Principal Investigators are Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, and the funding for the study was generously provided by the Russell Sage Foundations (Grant Nos. 88-06-04 and 88-08-18).


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