Stereotype Threat and Racial Stigma

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Stereotype Threat and Racial Stigma

Stereotype threat is a term given to the psychological experience of being confronted with a negative stereotype associated with a particular social identity. The term was coined in 1995 by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who defined it as an uncomfortable apprehension arising from awareness of a negative stereotype in a situation in which the stereotype is relevant and therefore confirmable through the target’s behavior. Stereotype threat is a predicament that can beset anyone. Thus, a white male in the presence of blacks may worry that he will inadvertently say something perceived as racist; an elderly man who has misplaced his keys may worry that others think he is senile; a southerner may worry that her drawl makes her sound unsophisticated, and so on.

Steele and Aronson (1995) argue that African Americans, who historically have been stereotyped as intellectually inferior to other groups, are likely to experience stereotype threat whenever they find themselves in situations where intellectual abilities are relevant, such as during or in other academic situations. Their initial experiments confirmed that when African–American college students were given a standardized test, they experienced greater anxiety, increased cognitive activation of stereotypes, and lower test performance when the test was presented as a way to evaluate their intelligence. The same test presented in a non–evaluative manner, however, produced little anxiety or cognitive activation of stereotypes and resulted in significantly better test performance among African–Americans. The manipulation of stereotype threat had no significant effect on white students, however.

By contrast, racial stigma is an attribute that marks or discredits an individual, one that reduces him or her “from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman 1963, p. 3). Racial stigma is not completely trans–situational. Rather, a stigma is defined by the particulars of the situation, in the sense that an attribute such as black skin may be viewed negatively in some contexts (e.g., the academic arena) but positively in others (e.g., the basketball arena), because of the specific attributes a culture attaches to specific social identities. Although perceptions of African Americans have steadily improved since the 1960s, they continue to perform worse, on average, in school and on than other groups. Thus, blackness continues to be a stigma in educational contexts. The same can be said for females in the domain of mathematics and science, despite the fact that women have made significant strides in these domains, and that the roles and opportunities available to women have expanded considerably since the mid–1900s.

Stereotype threat begins with a person’s knowledge that certain social identities are stereotypically associated with a stigmatized status in a given situation. Because the stereotype alleging African–American intellectual inferiority has been promulgated in America at least since the introduction of slavery, it is widely known throughout American society. Blackness can thus be stigmatizing in any context where intellectual ability is relevant or thought to be relevant. In many studies on stereotype threat, it is the relevance of intelligence to some activity that is manipulated. Thus, just as Steele and Aronson found that labeling an academic task as a measure of intelligence undermined performance, so too did labeling a sports activity as a measure of intelligence interfere with athletic performance (Stone et al. 1999).

Stereotype threat is an experience that is not limited to racial groups. For example, significant underperformance in response to stereotype threat has been demonstrated in a wide variety of groups. It is thus a general process, one not tied to any particular social identity; any group for whom a negative stereotype exists, or for whom some allegedly superior comparison group exists, can be vulnerable. So while white males are not stereotyped as being bad at math, they have been shown to perform less well on math tests when explicitly reminded of the stereotype of Asian mathematical superiority (Aronson et al. 1999). Significant stereotype threat effects (underperformance on some kind of ability test) have been documented among a wide variety of social groups (Aronson and Steele 2005), including African Americans on verbal and IQ tests; Latinos on verbal tests; women in the domain of math and science; elderly individuals in the domain of short–term memory; low–income individuals in the domain of verbal abilities, and white males in the domains of athletics (when compared to African Americans), mathematics (when compared to Asians), and social perceptiveness (when compared to women).

The effects of stereotype threat on intellectual performance appear to be mediated by a number of psychological processes. For example, experiments that vary the amount of stereotype threat find that a high level of stereotype threat results in higher blood pressure, faster heartbeat, higher cognitive load, higher self–reported anxiety, and a greater number of negative thoughts–all of which are capable of interfering with intellectual performance.

In the academic arena, various individual differences exist that appear to be risk factors for underperformance. Individuals who do not care much about academics or athletics are less likely than those who do to be bothered by the allegation that they lack ability in these areas. Experiments show that the greatest test–performance pressure occurs among those students who care a good deal about doing well (Aronson et al. 1999); if a given individual does not care about the evaluative domain in question—if they are not especially invested in academic achievement, for example—they will be less likely to find the relevance of a stereotype bothersome or disruptive to performance. Likewise, if a person does not feel any particular connection to the social group they belong to, they probably will not feel much pressure to disprove the negative stereotype about that group. In a 2005 study, Kay Deaux and her associates found that black Americans who are fairly recent immigrants from other countries do not identify with African–American culture as much as American–born blacks or those whose parents immigrated less recently. The degree to which such individuals identified with African–American culture significantly predicted their underperformance on an evaluative test, strongly suggesting that it is African–American culture, rather than genetic predisposition, that makes blacks vulnerable to underperformance.

Other risk factors include individual differences in areas related to mistrust. That is, some individuals tend to be more aware of prejudice and more bothered by its presence in their lives than do others. Such individuals enter situations anxiously, expecting people to perceive them and treat them differently based on their race, ethnicity or gender. All things being equal, individuals who have a high measure of this kind of cultural mistrust tend to perform worse on standardized tests, have a harder time adjusting to integrated academic colleges, and receive lower grades than their more trustful counterparts.

Stereotype threat has been viewed as a very positive development in the social–science literature because it convincingly attributes racial differences in test performance and school achievement to tractable, situational factors. It thus stands as one of the most compelling counterarguments to the point of view put forward in the controversial book The Bell Curve (1994), in which Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray attribute African Americans’ lower average IQ test scores and school achievement to genetically based differences in intelligence between racial groups. The stereotype–threat research casts doubt on this interpretation by demonstrating how testing and schooling situations are experienced differently for individuals of color, and how these differences can powerfully undermine performance. A number of research studies based on Steele and Aronson’s research have shown that test performance and school achievement can be significantly improved with simple interventions. For example, Aronson and his colleagues found that teaching minority students that their intelligence is not fixed—that it is malleable and can be expanded with hard work—significantly reduced the achievement gap on both and grade point averages (Aronson and Steele 2005). Similarly, Cohen, et al. (2006) found that stereotype threat could be reduced by affirming the self–concepts of minority students, a simple intervention that resulted in a substantial reduction of the black–white achievement gap among low–income adolescents. These interventions, derived from the stereotype threat formulation, provide a hopeful antidote to the pessimistic theories that attribute racial gaps primarily to intractable social forces and fixed, biological group differences in intellectual endowment.

SEE ALSO Brown V. Board of Education (Excerpt); Social Psychology of Racism.


Aronson, Joshua, et al. 1999. “When White Men Can’t Do Math: Necessary and Sufficient Factors in Stereotype Threat.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 29–46.

Aronson, Joshua, and Claude M. Steele. 2005. “Stereotypes and the Fragility of Human Competence, Motivation, and Self–Concept.” In Handbook of Competence and Motivation, ed. Andrew Elliot and Carol Dweck. New York: Guilford.

Cohen, Geoffrey L., et al. 2006. “Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social–Psychological Intervention.” Science 313: 1307–1310.

Deaux, Kay, et al. 2005. Becoming American: Stereotype Threat Effects in Black Immigrant Groups. Unpublished Manuscript, Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice–Hall, Inc.

Herrnstein, Richard, and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.

Massey, Douglas S., Camille Z. Charles, Garvey Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer. 2003. The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mendoza–Denton, Rodolfo, Valerie Purdie, Angelina Davis, and Janina Pietrzak. 2002. “Sensitivity to Status–Based Rejection: Implications for African American Students’ College Experience.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (4): 896–918.

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): 797–811.

Stone, Jeff, Christian I. Lynch, Mike Sjomeling, and John M. Darley. 1999. “Stereotype Threat Effects on Black and White Athletic Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 1213–1227.

Joshua Aronson