2012. Vol.3, No.7, 542-547
Published Online July 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Can Rewards Obviate Stereotype Threat Effects on Mental
Rotation Tasks?
Amanda Kanoy, Sheila Brownlow, Tiffany F. Sowers
Department of Psychology, Catawba College, Salisbury, USA
Received March 20th, 2012; revised April 21st, 2012; accepted May 24th, 2012
We examined whether sex-linked performance differences in Mental Rotation (MR) were obviated by
rewards for performing the tasks. MR is typically seen as the domain of men, and therefore women com-
pleting the MR tasks likely worked under conditions of stereotype threat, which meant that their perfor-
mance could vary according to situational variables. Men and women (n = 33 each) performed rotations
and provided several self-reflective reports on their performances and background information about their
experiences. Half of the participants (within sex) were rewarded for their participation with a gift card.
Women’s MR performance was lower than men’s when no reward was given, but equaled it when they
were rewarded. The finding was not a function of skill and self-reported effort, and emerged even when a
stringent scoring technique was employed. The results suggest that rewards, even if they are not large,
may nullify stereotype threat effects on women’s MR.
Keywords: Stereotype Threat; Mental Rotation; Sex Differences
Can Rewards Obviate Stereotype Threat Effects
on Rotation Tasks?
“In the end, it is impossible not to become what others be-
lieve you are” Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Memories of My
Melancholy Whores, 2005.
Garcia Marquez’s words illustrate the basic idea of stereo-
type threat: the fear people of clearly-defined groups have that
they may confirm negative stereotypes about their group (Steele,
1997). Such fears often lead people to perform well below their
level of competence (Steele & Aronson, 1995). If people claim
group membership, understand the stereotype of the group, and
are worried about what others will think of them personally (or
their group as a whole), they can perform below their abilities
on a variety of cognitive tasks (Shapiro, 2011; Shapiro & Neu-
berg, 2007).
There are many forms of stereotype threat that negatively
impact people (Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007), but group-reputation
threat is one that acutely influences individual behavior. This
threat is the fear of confirming the negative group stereotype in
the minds of the others outside the group (Schmader, Johns &
Forbes, 2008). The concern goes beyond affect states and actu-
ally hinders cognitive performance, typically by increasing
arousal (O’Brien & Crandall, 2003), evaluation concern (Bro-
dish & Devine, 2009), self-handicapping behaviors (Keller,
2002), and by introducing intrusive thoughts about “letting your
group down” (Cadinu, Maass, Frigerio, Impagliazzo, & Lati-
notti, 2003; McIntyre, Paulson, & Lord, 2003).
Such thoughts may be at the root of the underperformance of
Black men in comparison to their White peers on standardized
tests (Aronson et al., 1998; Croizet & Claire, 1998), or for
White men in similar circumstances when compared to Asian
men (who may be seen as gifted in mathematics; Smith &
White, 2002). While the earliest studies of how stereotype
threat exerts its influence focused on the dimensions of race and
ethnicity, threat can also hinder performances of people based
on other dimensions, including academic interest (Seibt & För-
ster, 2004), spatial relations (Brownlow, Valentine, & Owusu,
2008), social sensitivity (Koenig & Eagly, 2005), socioeco-
nomic status (Croizet & Claire, 1998), and athleticism (Stone,
Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999).
Sex-linked stereotype threat effects have been well-docu-
mented in the domain of mathematics performance, an aca-
demic area where most believe—quite erroneously—that men
are superior to women (Else-Quest, Hyde, & Linn, 2010).
When experimental manipulations make clear that mathematics
ability is to be tested, women do poorly in relation to men (Carr
& Steele, 2009; Schmader, 2002; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn,
1999). The threat-induced decrease in math performance and
other related cognitive tasks can be lessened or eliminated sim-
ply by reminding women of the positive, achievement-oriented
aspects of their sex role (Schmader, Johns, & Barquissau, 2004),
by highlighting another part of a social identity that is not defi-
cient in math (Gresky, Ten Eyck, Lord, & McIntyre, 2005;
Schmader et al., 2008), by presenting “peer testimonials” about
the ease of the task (Brownlow, Janas, Blake, Rebadow, &
Mellon, 2011), by claiming a test is being used simply to
gather baseline information (Gonzalez, Blanton, & Williams,
2002), through the presentation of a high-achieving role
model (Lesko & Corpus, 2006), and even by noting that
women make better students and research subjects than do
men (McIntyre et al., 2003). Thus, nullifying a stereotype
threat and preventing underperformance is possible through a
variety of means.
Stereotype threat affects self-efficacy, which in turn may in-
fluence actual task ability. If people perceive that they may fail
at a given task, they may avoid the task (Spencer et al., 1999;
Steele & Aronson, 1995). If they do engage and perform poorly,
lack of efficacy is confirmed, perpetuating the idea of doubt
about ability in the future (Schmader et al., 2004) and ultima-
tely leading to a lack of interest in that area (Keller & Dauen-
heimer, 2003). Worse, stereotype threat can undermine actual
ability, by preventing target persons from encoding and learn-
ing necessary information to start (R. Rydell, M. Rydell, &
Boucher, 2010; Taylor & Walton, 2011).
Areas where women have little confidence and are underrep-
resented (such as STEM fields including science, engineering,
and mathematics; see Shapiro & Williams, 2012) often employ
Mental Rotation. Mental rotation (MR) is the transformation of
three-dimensional blocks or objects in the head. Men outper-
form women by being quicker and more accurate at rotations
(Bodner & Guay, 1997; Newcombe, 2007; Voyer, Voyer, &
Bryden, 1995). Sex-linked differences in MR can be reduced or
eliminated via practice, emphasis on accuracy over speed, or by
shifting the focus on the tasks from rotations per se to general-
ized cognitive abilities (Alington, Leaf, & Monaghan, 2001;
Sharps, Price, & Williams, 1994; Scali, Brownlow, & Hicks,
2000). Practice on the task (Kass, Ahlers, & Dugger, 1998), on
spatial games (Cherney, 1998), and classes in mathematics and
physical sciences are linked to better MR performance (Brown-
low, McPherson, & Acks, 2003), as is athletic activity that em-
ploys spatial behavior (Ozel, Larue, & Molinaro, 2004; but
only for men, Balentine & Brownlow, 2006).
In sum, stereotype threat provides one possible explanation
for women’s lack of MR ability in contrast to men. Although
stereotype threat can be nullified in many ways, focusing on
changing the cognitions or attributions for performance may be
key to changing subsequent performance. Rewards may change
not only behavior, but may also shift the attribution for behave-
ior from internal to external (Freedman, Cunningham, & Kris-
mer, 1992; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Paisley, 1984). More-
over, rewards for research participation imply that the task is
difficult, unpleasant, and tedious, thus making attributions eas-
ier to externalize (Freedman et al., 1992), and perhaps alleviat-
ing concern that individual performance will reflect on an entire
group. Thus, the purpose of this experiment was to examine
how rewards for participation would influence performance on
MR. We hypothesized that women’s performance would im-
prove if they were unconcerned or less concerned about stereo-
type threat, and therefore predicted that reward would improve
women’s performance in this domain.
A total of 66 college students (n = 33 men; n = 33 women),
aged 17 - 22, participated for course credit in psychology or
sociology courses. Participants were assigned randomly within
sex to complete rotation tasks for research credit only, or for
credit and a gift card reward, resulting in a 2 × 2 (Sex × Reward)
between-participant design. Because all participants earned
research credit (a requirement), the gift card to the College
bookstore—given at the start of the experiment and part of the
recruitment into the experiment—served as the reward.
Dependent Measures—MR Performance
The men and women completed the Purdue Visualization of
Rotations Test (PVRT; Bodner & Guay, 1997), a test composed
of 20 multi-dimensional block rotations. In this test, each block
is paired with an identical shape that has been rotated along two
dimensions (such as tilted forward and turned right), and under
that is another shape by itself. The test then shows five different
rotated options for the unpaired shape, with only one correct
rotation that matches the rotation pattern of the original paired
shapes. The participants could score from 0 to 20 depending on
the number of correct responses (raw score). The adjusted score
(the raw score minus the number of incorrect responses) was
recorded to accommodate guessing (Goldstein, Haldane, &
Mitchell 1990), and ranged from –20 to 20. Time on task in s
was also recorded.
Dependent Measures—Self Reports of Skill, Efficacy,
Effort, and Handicapping
Self-efficacy and performance expectations may positively
influence performance under stereotype threat (Smith; 2006),
but lack of efficacy and tendency to self-handicap may increase
stereotype-threat based underperformance (Stone, 2002). Thus,
participants completed several measures of their skill, efficacy,
efforts, and the judgments of the task and their beliefs about it
using separate bipolar scales with the endpoints of 1 to 7, each
bounded by opposite-meaning endpoints. One such question
was how hard participants tried, bounded by 1 I didn’t try very
hard and 7 I tried very hard. The specific questions are de-
scribed below in the section titled “data reduction”.
Dependent M e a s u re s—Background
Background measures were taken because certain activities
give people practice with MR tasks (Cadinu et al., 2003; Voyer
& Isaacs, 1993). These activities included the number of sci-
ences courses, particularly organic chemistry (Bodner & Guay,
1997), mathematics, dance, organized sports, and art classes.
Self-reports about abilities in these areas were assessed on
7-point scales (endpoints labeled 1 not good at all to 7 very
good). Participants reported the number of hours they played
video/interactive games (0 - 2, 3 - 6, 7 - 10, 11 - 14, 15+).
After obtaining consent, we told participants that “you are
about to complete several problem solving tasks that involve
rotating multi-dimensional blocks”. These instructions were
also provided on the cover page of the dependent measures
booklet. Those in the reward group were told, “for your time
and efforts, we are giving you a gift card to the College Book-
store; it’s yours to keep for participation.” The gift card was
then given to the participant (or not), sample rotations were
provided, questions answered, and the participants were left
alone in the cubicle with the instructions to ring the bell once
they started the first MR, and to ring the bell again when they
finished (timed, in s, using a stopwatch). The PVRT booklet
was removed and the men and women were given a packet of
background assessment and self-efficacy scales. Reports of
self-efficacy, and self-handicapping were taken in two orders to
reduce order effects. Debriefing occurred at a later time when
all the data had been collected.
Data Analysis
Each major performance measure was entered separately into
2 × 2 (Sex × Reward) ANOVAs. Then, self-report measures of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 543
performance and background were subjected to separate factor
analyses; resultant factors related to performance were then
employed as covariates in analyses to examine whether efficacy
and/or background mitigated the joint influence of sex and
reward on performance.
Effect of Sex and Incentives on MR Performances
To examine how rewards influenced MR of women and men,
the raw scores, adjusted scores, and the time on task (in sec)
were separately entered into 2 × 2 (Sex × Incentive) ANOVAs.
The means and standard deviations from these analyses can be
seen in Table 1.
There was no main effect of reward on raw score, F(1, 62) <
1.00, MSE = 12.01, ns, nor a main effect for sex, F(1, 62) =
2.58, p = .11; however the Sex × Reward interaction was sig-
nificant, F(1, 62) = 4.19, p < .05, 2
= .06. Post hoc Scheffé
tests comparing the means of men and women within reward
condition demonstrated that women who received no reward (M
= 11.47, SD = 3.09) did significantly poorer than men who did
not receive a reward (M = 14.59, SD = 3.20). However, women
who had the reward (M = 13.06, SD = 3.44) performed on par
with men who were rewarded (M = 12.69, SD = 4.09).
Adjusted scores showed the same pattern, with no main ef-
fect of incentive, F(1, 62) < 1.00, MSE = 48.32, ns, and sex,
F(1, 62) = 2.99, p = .09. However, the Sex × Incentive interact-
tion produced a marginally significant effect, F(1, 62) = 3.66, p
= .06,
p2 = .06. The adjusted scores had more variability than
did the raw scores, thus the effect was only marginal, but the
means followed the same pattern as the raw score means.
Women who were rewarded (M = 5.94, SD = 6.78) scored on
par with men who were rewarded (M = 5.62, SD = 8.33). In
contrast, when stereotype threat was in the air and no reward
was offered, men (M = 9.18, SD = 6.40) outperformed women
(M = 2.94, SD = 6.16). There were no main effects of sex or
incentive, nor was there an interaction between sex and incen-
tive, for time-to-complete the task, all Fs(1, 62) 1.24, MSE =
53739.22, all ps .24.
Data Reduction
Reduction of the data was necessary because multiple meas-
ures of the same constructs may have been taken. A factor
analysis with varimax rotation was calculated on judgments of
task liking, efficacy, self-handicapping, and perception of per-
formance. The analysis produced six factors that accounted for
70.04% of the variance. The factors and their loadings are re-
ported in Table 2. These factors were named Skill (including
ability, enjoyment, positive performance evaluation, lack of
frustration, understanding of the difficulty of the task, and per-
ception that the task was not “tricky”), Self-Handicapping (af-
firmative judgments of recent life pressure, school stress, and
feeling rushed during the day of the experiment), Effort (belief
the test is valid, amount of effort put forth), Evaluation Appre-
hension (nervousness, concern for evaluation), Task (Dis)Liking
(lack of enjoyment of task), and Reward Pressure (pressure due
to the presence of reward).
A second factor analysis with varimax rotation was per-
formed on measures of self-reported background experiences in
the task. The factor analysis was performed to reduce and com-
bine overlapping measures of sports experience, perceived math
and science skill, and artistic abilities. The analysis produced
Table 1.
Means, SD, and Fs for MR performance measures as a function of sex
and reward.
Men Women Total
Card 12.69 13.06 12.88
(4.09) (3.44) (3.72)
No Card 14.59a 11.47b 13.03
(3.20) (3.09) (3.48)
Total 13.67 12.24 12.95
(3.73) (3.31) (3.57)
F Sex (S) F Reward (R) F S × R
2.58 <1.00 4.19*
Card 5.62 5.94 5.78
(8.33) (6.78) (7.47)
No Card 9.18 2.94 6.06
(6.40) (6.16) (6.95)
Total 7.45 4.39 5.92
(7.51) (6.55) (7.16)
F Sex (S) F Reward (R) F S × R
2.99 <1.00 3.66
Card 636.50 538.69 587.59
(277.89) (153.82) (226.46)
No Card 573.00 609.41 591.21
(266.02) (250.16) (235.48)
Total 603.79 575.12 589.45
(250.56) (208.97) (229.38)
F Sex (S) F Reward (R) F S × R
<1.00 <1.00 <1.00
Note: N = 66. F-values marked with *p < .05. Means marked with different sub-
scripts within rows differ, p < .05. Raw score varies from 20 to 5; adjusted scores
from –10 to 20.
three background factors that accounted for 59.49% of the
variance in the data. Specific loadings are shown in Table 3.
Sport Skill (self-reported sports ability, length of time playing
non-College sports), Math-Science Skill (self-reported math
skill and self-reported science skill), and Dance Background
(length of dance training, avoidance of video games) were the
factors produced.
Relationship of Self-Reports and Background
Measures to MR Performance
Factor means, after reverse scoring as needed, were calcu-
lated. These means were then correlated with the performance
measures (MR time, raw score, and adjusted score). The rela-
tionships among self-reported efficacy/enjoyment factors, aca-
demic and sports background, and performance can be seen in
Table 4.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Table 2.
Results of factor analyses on self-reports efficacy measures.
Factor and Variance Measures (Loadings)
Ability (.79)
Test Trickiness (–.76)
Enjoyment (.81)
Performance Evaluation (.81)
Frustration (–76)
Skill (24.29%)
Task Difficulty (.76)
Recent Life Pressure (.73)
Recent School Stress (.78)
Feeling Rushed During Day of
Self-Handicapping (12.95%)
Experiment (.73)
Belief the Test is Valid (.69)
Effort (9.87%)
Effort (.82)
Nervousness (.58)
Evaluation Apprehension (9.37%)
Evaluation Concern (.85)
Task (Dis)Liking (6.82%) Lack of Task Enjoyment (.91)
Reward Pressure (6.74%) Reward Pressure (.90)
Note: N = 66. Factor Analysis is the result of Principal Component Analyses with
varimax rotation.
Table 3.
Results of factor analyses on background measures.
Factor and Variance Measures (Loadings)
Self-Reported Sports Ability (.85)
Length of Playing Sports
Sports Skill (24.14%)
Before College (.88)
Self-Reported Math Skill (.86)
Math-Science Skill (18.40%)
Self-Reported Science Skill (.70)
Length of Dance Training (.78)
Hours/Week Playing Dance Background (16.95%)
Video Games (–.72)
Note: N = 66. Factor Analysis is the result of Principal Component Analyses with
varimax rotation.
In sum, self-reported skill and effort positively related to raw
score, and sports background was negatively related to raw
score. A similar pattern appeared with adjusted score, with
math/science skill also showing a positive correlation with that
measure. Finally, only self-reported effort was related (posi-
tively) to time.
Influence of Self-Reports of Efficacy and Back gr ou nd
as Mediators of Sex and Nullification Effects on MR
Factors related to each performance measure were employed
as covariates in 2 × 2 (Sex × Reward) ANCOVAs on time, raw
score, and adjusted score in order to examine whether any
would change or eliminate the patterns described previously.
For raw score, there were three covariates: sports skill, effort,
Table 4.
Correlations between self-reported efficacy, background factors, and mr
MR Performance
Factor TimeRaw Score Adjusted Score
Self-reported skills .02 .43*** .45***
Self-handicapping –.05 .10 .10
Effort .26* .29* .29*
Self-consciousness .07 .19 .21
Lack of test enjoyment –.12 .09 .10
Reward –.03 .01 .02
Sports skill –.16 –.29* –.28*
Choreography/dance –.06 –.10 –.09
Math/Science Ability .16 .24 .26*
Note: df = 64, *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
and self-reported skill. Of these, self-reported skill was signify-
cant, F(1, 58) = 10.04, MSE = 9.54, p = .002, 2
= .15, but the
others were not. The ANCOVA results, in parallel with the
ANOVA findings, showed no main effects of sex or reward,
however, the interaction was again significant, F(1, 58) = 4.29,
p = .04, 2
= .07. Three covariates were significant for the
analysis with adjusted scores, all Fs(1, 57) and MSE = 35.33:
sports skill (F = 4.07, p = .048, 2
= .07), self-reported skill
(F = 5.63, p = .021, 2
= .09), and math/science ability (F =
5.15, p = .027, 2
= .08). Despite the significant covariates,
the pattern of results for adjusted scores remained as previous,
with no main effects of sex or reward. However, there was a
significant interaction, F(1, 57) = 5.35, p = .024, 2
= .09.
Finally, effort was a significant covariate to time to complete
the task, F(1, 61) = 5.53, MSE = 50082.92 , p = .02, 2
= .08,
but no main effects nor the interaction in the ANCOVA were
The results revealed that reward can obviate MR perform-
ance differences between men and women. The influence of the
reward as a means to equalize women’s MR performance with
men’s remained when various background skills and self-re-
ported effort were held constant, and was not a function of
self-handicapping, evaluation apprehension, incentive, task
liking, math/science skill, reward pressure, or certain back-
ground experiences. As per previous research, men outper-
formed women when there was no reward and the stereotype
threat was in the air (Newcombe, 2007; Scali & Brownlow,
2001; Sharps et al., 1994).
That women and men performed on par when rewarded
shows that rewards worked differently for each, essentially
increasing women’s performance and decreasing men’s, and
suggests that rewards might nullify the deleterious effects of
stereotype threat on women’s MR performance, assuming that
women but not men were working under threat. Rewards may
have affected women but not men because incentives for re-
search participation connote that a task might be hard (Freed-
man et al., 1992), and perhaps women (who may have already
thought the task was going to be unpleasant) were not further
negatively influenced, but men (for whom the task should not
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 545
have been seen as onerous) did come to see the task that way.
Like stereotype threat mediators, reward can positively and
negatively affect performance. How an individual views the
incentive can influence how well he or she performs, much like
the way self-efficacy can affect performance. If a person is
offered money, then performance expectations may increase
(Ostrove, 1978). More importantly, research enticements may
make attributions for performance easier to externalize and
decrease internal attributions for behavior (Freedman et al.,
1992), a situation which may have benefited women by reduce-
ing fear of low performance.
The results also suggest that it is possible that the reward
nullified the stereotype threat for women by decreasing the
intrusive thoughts that often occur for the targets of stereotype
threat. That spatial tasks are generally thought of as “male”
may have allowed the men to avoid the evaluation apprehend-
sion and intrusive thoughts that women may have experienced
due to stereotype threat (Ostrove, 1978; Raty & Kasanen, 2007;
Schmader, 2002). The women who received a reward may have
been prevented from thinking about the task by being given the
reward to them upfront—or perhaps women simply perceived
that they needed to work harder to justify their gift. These
women could make external attributions but did not do so be-
cause they experienced no evaluation apprehension (which
decreases performance; Brodish & Devine, 2009). As a result, it
is possible that no intrusive thoughts about performance oc-
curred and the stereotype threat toward their sex was ignored,
resulting no sex differences on the MR tasks when reward was
That reward can at least temporarily reduce sex-linked dif-
ferences in MR has implications for understanding how women
may come to change their evaluations of their personal abilities.
If persons working under stereotype threat have doubt about
their abilities on a task, those doubts can have a negative influ-
ence on self-perceived future abilities on related tasks (Sch-
mader et al., 2004). Such self-doubt contributes to a lack of
interest in pursuing a given field even if ability is present (Kel-
ler & Dauenheimer, 2003), because others continue to hold the
stereotype (Cheryan, 2012). Reward may be a mechanism to
keep a level of engagement that might otherwise be lost. Al-
though paying people to complete cognitive and technical tasks
in an institution is not a practical solution to the problems asso-
ciated with stereotype threat, there are other forms of reward,
including explicit encouragement, that may function the same
way. Such explicit acknowledgements can have consequences
for women’s participation in STEM fields where their presence
is lacking (Shapiro, 2012). Whether rewards work to obviate
group-related differences under stereotype threat on other cog-
nitive tasks is still an open question.
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