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Stereotype Threat

Stereotype Threat


Stereotype threat is a term coined by social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson that refers to the fear people experience when they are at risk of confirming a negative stereotype that is held about their group. This psychological threat can undermine successful performance of tasks and activities.

Typically stereotype threat is examined by asking people to perform a challenging task that evaluates their ability in an area. Before the task, some people are given a prompt designed to activate a stereotype. For example, when women are reminded of the stereotype that men are better than women at math, they score lower on a difficult math test. Similarly African American students who are told that a test reflects their verbal ability perform worse on the test than do equally capable white students. Mere mention that the test diagnoses verbal ability is enough to conjure up a debilitating belief among some African American students that their score will be lower. But a person need not be socially stigmatized, feel intellectually inferior, or belong to a minority group to be vulnerable to stereotype threat. In one study, white men from a prestigious university were asked to take a difficult math test on which, some were told, Asians typically perform better. The men in this threat condition performed worse on the exam than did those who received no information about how others perform. Indeed stereotype threat can impair the cognitive functioning of anyone who is in a negatively stereotyped group (e.g., drug users, the elderly, athletes, the economically disadvantaged).

Stereotype threat is situation-dependent and is not a general attitude or expectancy that affects individuals across contexts. A threatening situation can occur any time a negative stereotype is brought to mind, even when a person is alone. Experimenters have also shown that priming positive stereotypes about ones group can actually enhance performance. In one experiment, for example, Asian American women performed well on a mathematics test when their ethnicity was made prominent, but poorly when their gender was made prominent.

What makes people vulnerable to the threat of fulfilling a stereotype? First, people are likely to experience a threat in those areas in which they care about performing well. When a woman who values success in math is being evaluated, she will feel more threatened by a stereotype than will someone who dismisses math as unimportant. Also at risk are people who feel a strong sense of identification with and attachment to their group. Merely having to indicate ones race on the first page of an evaluation can be enough to activate a threat and impair performance. When one is in the numerical minority (e.g., the only African American student in a group of white students), group identity is made even more salient. People who expect discrimination or suspect that a stereotype may be valid are also more easily triggered by threatening situations.

The fear of confirming a negative stigma has been shown to lower students performance on items from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), Ravens Progressive Matrices, and high school Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Stereotype threat has also been shown to limit important cognitive resources such as working memory and self-monitoring capabilities. Students who feel threatened may enlist strategies to safeguard their self-esteem, such as opting for less challenging school work, making excuses for their school failures, resisting feedback others give them about their work, or disassociating with school-related activities altogether. As a consequence, the effects of stereotype threat may be far-reaching, influencing placement in advanced classes, college admissions, peoples career choices, and, ultimately, their earnings. Some argue that stereotype threat is in part to blame for the black-white achievement gap prevalent in U.S. schools.

Researchers have suggested a number of ways in which people can offset the detrimental effects of stereotype threat. Leaders and decision makers, whether in schools or elsewhere, can emphasize cooperative working environments that reduce prejudice, foster trusting interpersonal relationships, and value others as individuals. Placing an emphasis on the malleable nature of academic ability will also help individuals see the potential for intellectual growth and academic success. Researchers have also shown that individuals who are good self-monitorsthat is, those who are sensitive to their social surroundings and able to regulate their behavior to negotiate themshow resilience in the face of stereotype-threatening situations. Helping individuals to become self-affirming may provide them with an interior source of strength and assurance needed to withstand environmental stressors.

SEE ALSO Achievement Gap, Racial; Cognition; Diathesis-Stress Model; Prejudice; Priming; Racism; Self-Esteem; Self-Monitoring; Standardized Tests; Steele, Claude M.; Stereotypes; Stigma; Stress; Stress-Buffering Model


Aronson, Joshua, and Claude M. Steele. 2005. Stereotypes and the Fragility of Academic Competence, Motivation, and Self-Concept. In Handbook of Competence and Motivation, eds. Andrew J. Elliot and Carol S. Dweck, 436456. New York: Guilford Press.

Spencer, Steven J., Claude M. Steele, and Diane M. Quinn. 1999. Stereotype Threat and Womens Math Performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35 (1): 428.

Steele, Claude M. 1997. A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist 52 (6): 613629.

Steele, Claude M., and Joshua Aronson. 1995. Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797811.

Ellen L. Usher

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