Testing Stereotypes to Improve Performance

May 19, 2021
Stock Photo, Black male doing planking excersise in fitness gym, from Getty.

Research examining how racial stereotypes and motivation impact physical performance could improve the way we look at teamwork. 

“As a man of color, I was interested in how racial differences and perceived stereotypes could affect an individual’s performance within a team context,” said Tayo Moss, Ph.D. ’18 (Kinesiology), principal investigator. “You hear perceived stereotypes about groups—Black men are strong, more athletic, for example. Let’s put that to the test.” 

In one study, Moss and fellow researchers calculated how long white males were able to hold a series of planks on their own. Then they paired the white male with a stronger partner who was either another white male, a male of Asian descent or a Black male. The second set of planks were performed as a team where the team score consisted of the person who stopped holding the exercise first. 

When paired with a Black partner, white men maintained the planks for significantly less time (that is, they gave less effort to the partnered team) than when paired with a white or Asian partner. 

However, when the white participants in the experiment wore the same color shirt and shared a team name with a Black partner, the white men were able to maintain their plank holds much longer. 


In the studies, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, the white participants believed their partner was in another lab (connected by audio and video). However, they were actually interacting with a pre-recorded segment, and the virtual partner’s score from the first series of planks was always stated to be 40% better than the participant. Thus, unbeknownst to the participant, the virtual partner never quit first.

Data from the first study show when a white participant was paired with a white partner, they were able to hold their planks about 11 seconds longer than when timed alone. When paired with an Asian partner, they held about 4 seconds less, and when paired with a Black partner, about 19 seconds less.

“We found that white participants might have acted on an implicit perception of their Black partner as being too strong to keep up with him on a challenging physical task,” the research found. “These results occurred even though the Black partner was not any stronger than the white or Asian partner, and all partners reported that they felt like they were part of the team.”

We’re all humans. This research can help us see each other better and help us work more efficiently.

Tayo Moss, Ph.D. ’18 (Kinesiology)


The second study challenged this idea and questioned how a stronger sense of teamwork could change the results. 

Participants were assigned to one of two groups (or to a control group). One group had the same parameters as the first study: A white male paired with a virtual Black male partner who, the participant was told, had performed better in the previous timed series. The second group added the variation of participants and their Black partners wearing the same team shirt color and adopting a team name. The variation tested results from Moss’s own master’s thesis,1 which found that wearing same-colored shirts and using team names resulted in increased persistence in a task. 

For this study, those who were simply paired with a Black partner held the plank about 35 second less than in the previous series. But when teamed up in a way that enhanced a team identity—for example, wearing a green shirt and adopting the team name of Spartan—the white participants held the planks about 17 seconds longer. 

“When we introduce elements of being on a team,” Moss explained, “that cohesion removed the loss of motivation we found in the first study.” 

The findings—which included support from Department of Kinesiology Professor and Chairperson Alan L. Smith and University Distinguished Professor Emerita Deborah L. Feltz—are a step in identifying better ways to enhance teamwork, performance and motivation. Its results can reach beyond sport and exercise psychology, Moss said. 

“The findings from this research could be incorporated into a variety of athletic and work settings,” Moss said. For example, human resource departments could take individuals from different organizational groups and allow them to choose a team name or team shirt to enhance group identity and make individuals feel more like a team, and thus more productive.

“We’re all humans,” Moss added. “This research can help us see each other better and help us work more efficiently.” 

1. Moss, T., Feltz, D.L., Kerr, N.L., Winn, B., Smith, A.L., & Spencer, B. (2018). Intergroup competition in exergames: Further tests of the Köhler motivation effect. Games for Health Journal.


“Attenuation of the Köhler Effect in Racially Dissimilar Partnered Exercise Reversed Using Team Identity Strategy,” Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2020. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33567401