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Social Psychology of Sport Lab



Room 516A

Department of Psychology

University of Arizona



The social psychology of sport lab conducts research on the causes and consequences of racial and gender stereotypes about athletes.  Our work examines the following questions:


Š     How do people explain the relationship between race, gender and performance in sports?


            Explaining why some groups perform better than others in sports leads people to develop stereotyped beliefs about the characteristics of Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian male and female athletes.  To examine the beliefs people hold about the relationship between race, gender and performance in sports, collected ratings from 1500 Black, White, Hispanic and Asian male and female students about the natural athletic ability, intelligence, emotionality, and work ethic of Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian male and female athletes.  The data revealed that:



            Future research:  There are undoubtedly a number of variables that effect these beliefs, such as the perceiver's level of prejudice and/or concerns about appearing biased toward one or more groups.  Perceptions might also be influenced by knowledge and attitudes toward sports.  Participation in sports as current or former competitive athlete might also affect the way that different groups of athletes are perceived.  These are important directions for future work.


Š     Do stereotypes impact perceptions of athletic performance?


            One important consequence of stereotypes about athletes is that they can influence how people interpret an athletic performance.  In one experiment we did to investigate the perceptual confirmation of racial stereotypes about athletes (Stone, Perry & Darley, 1997), White participants listened to a radio broadcast of a basketball game and focused on evaluating the performance of one player.  Participants were led to believe the target player was either a Black male or a White male.  Post-game ratings of the target showed that when participants thought that the target player was Black, he was rated high in athletic ability and to be a better basketball player, but he was also rated low in intelligent and hustle.  However, when participants thought he was White, the target player was rated as highly intelligent and as showing high effort, but as having low natural ability and possessing less skill in basketball.  This is striking evidence of perceptual confirmation when we consider that all participants listened to the same target performance!  The data suggest that people let their beliefs about race guide their judgments of the target athlete's characteristics.  

            Future research:  It is important to conduct carefully controlled perceptual confirmation studies to extend these findings for athletes of White, Black, Hispanic and Asian decent across other sports such as soccer, American football, baseball, tennis, and golf.


Š     Do stereotypes impact athletic performance? 


            Another important consequence of stereotypes about athletes is that they may directly impact their performance in sports (Stone, Chalabaev, & Harrison, 2012).  Our lab initially examined if the negative stereotypes about Black and White athletes can influence their performance during a sports task.  Based on the theory of Stereotype Threat (Steele, 1997), we predicted that if the negative stereotype about Black athletes (i.e., low sports intelligence) and White athletes (i.e., low natural athletic ability) became prominent while they were performing a sports task, concern over verifying the stereotype would cause each group to perform more poorly, compared to when positive stereotypes or neutral attributes were prominent in the performance context. 

            My colleagues and I  (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1997) tested this hypothesis by having Black and White former high school athletes complete a golf-putting task in our lab.  In one experiment we found that:

            (a) Both Black and White participants performed well on the laboratory golf task when it was said to measure "sports psychology" (a stereotype-irrelevant domain)

            (b) White participants performed significantly worse than Black participants when performance was said to measure "natural athletic ability," and         (c) Black participants performed significantly worse than White participants when performance was said to measure "sports intelligence."  


            **An important point made by this research is that the negative impact of stereotypes is not limited to minority group members; anyone who belongs to a group for whom negative stereotypes exist can suffer the debilitating effects of the negative stereotype in a performance situation. 


            Our subsequent research has extended these findings in a number of important directions.  For example, we recently found that negative stereotypes about female athletes influence their performance in sports in the same way that negative racial stereotypes impact performance.  In one experiment (Stone & McWhinnie, 2008), White females required significantly more strokes to finish a golf-putting task when natural ability was said to be a problem for females as compared to when they were told that natural ability is a problem for White athletes.  Interestingly, their accuracy while putting was negatively impacted by a subtler source of threat:  They did worse when a male compared to a female experimenter conducted the session.  This suggests that different aspects of performance in sports can be influenced simultaneously by different stereotype threat cues.  In other words, athletes might explicitly pay attention to one source of stereotype threat, while another implicit source is impacting their ability to play to their potential. 

            We have also investigated the strategies that athletes use to defeat the threat of confirming a negative stereotype through a poor performance (Stone, 2002).  Two experiments showed that when natural athletic ability was made salient, White athletes self-handicapped by practicing less on our lab golf course compared to control conditions.  It appears from these findings that stereotype threat processes may begin before people start to struggle on a difficult test; just the salience of a negative stereotype in a performance situation can engage defensive behaviors designed to mitigate the threat.  In this case, however, the defensive strategies are self-defeating because they motivated athletes to avoid preparing for the test performance. 

            Along with colleagues Aina Chalabaev, Phillippe Sarrazin, and Jean-Claude Croizet from France, we have also examined the impact of stereotypes have on physiological responses to negative stereotypes about other groups of athletes.  In one study (Chalabaev, Stone, Sarrazin, & Croizet, 2008), we found that when men (women) were told that women (men) were not very good at balancing their weight, each group's performance on a balance task was "lifted" or improved above a control condition, and among the males, the improvement was mediated by higher self-confidence and task involvement as measured by their heart rate.  We also recently found evidence that when female soccer players in France performed a soccer-dribbling task, they were not able to match a baseline performance if the task was framed as either a measure of their athletic ability or as a measure of their "technical ability" in soccer, a negative stereotype about female soccer players in France (see Chalabaev, Sarrazin, Stone & Cury, 2008).  One reason for the poorer performance in both conditions is that the female soccer players formed avoidance goals once they were told that the task was related to a negative stereotype about their group. 

            Future research:  We continue to investigate the psychological dynamics of how negative stereotypes about athletes impact their performance in sports. 


Š     How do stereotypes impact the performance of athletes in the classroom?


            We recently turned our attention to another performance domain in which athletes cope with stereotype threat:  The college classroom (Stone, 2012).  Research indicates that academic faculty and students believe that student-athletes are not as intelligent, motivated, or prepared for college courses as "traditional" students who do not play sports.  Arguably, these negative stereotypes are inaccurate; at many Division I schools, student-athletes have higher GPAs and graduation rates than traditional students.  We believe these facts suggest that (1) most college student-athletes know the "dumb jock" stereotype and (2) most student-athletes believe that the negative stereotype does not apply to them personally.  Consequently, student-athletes who perceive that they are the target of a negative stereotype in a classroom context may become concerned that a poor performance will verify that they are not as intelligent, prepared, or motivated as their non-athletic peers.  The threat of confirming the negative stereotype, in turn, could interfere with their ability to perform up to their academic potential.   

            My colleagues and I published evidence for stereotype threat among college student athletes (Harrison, Stone, Shapiro, Yee, Boyd & Rullan, 2009).  We hypothesized that because they are more engaged in academics, female college athletes would be especially threatened by the prospect of confirming the "dumb-jock" stereotype.  However, because they cope with being stigmatized by compartmentalizing their conflicting identities, females would only feel threatened when both their athletic and academic identities were explicitly linked prior to taking a challenging test of their verbal skills.  In contrast, male student athletes were expected to be self-affirmed by the link between their athletic and academic identities.  As predicted, female college athletes performed more poorly on a test of their verbal abilities when their athletic and academic identities were explicitly linked, but only on moderately difficult test items.  The results also revealed that male college athletes performed significantly better on more difficult test items when only their athletic identity was primed prior to the test. This is an important finding as there is little research on the impact of positive stereotypes on performance. 

            A recent study (Stone, Harrison, &  Motley, 2012)  found that Academically engaged African American college-athletes are most at risk for stereotype threat in the classroom when the context links their performance to their unique status as both scholar and athlete.  Division I male and female African-American and White college athletes completed measures of academic engagement before taking a test of verbal reasoning.  Stereotype threat was varied when participants indicated their status as a scholar-athlete, an athlete, or as a research participant (control).  Compared to the other groups, academically engaged African-American college athletes performed more poorly on difficult test items when their performance was linked to their identity as an athlete compared to the control prime, but they performed worse on both the difficult and easy test items when primed for their identity as a “scholar-athlete.”

            We continue to investigate the different motivational processes that impact the academic performance of different groups of college athletes when aspects of their campus identity are primed within a classroom context. 


            Comments or questions about our research: mailto:jeffs@u.arizona.edu