- Stereotype threat refers to the psychological phenomenon where an individual feels at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.
- Stereotype threat contributes to achievement and opportunity gaps among racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural groups, — particularly in academics and in the workplace.
- Interventions such as teaching about stereotype threat and growth mindset, implementing self-affirmation assignments, and highlighting positive role models have been proven to have a positive impact on fighting stereotype threat.
In This Article
The term stereotype threat was first defined by researchers Steele and Aronson as “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (Steele et al., 1995).
In other words, stereotype threat refers to an individual’s fear that their actions or behaviors will support negative ideas about a group to which they belong.
For instance, if an individual is worried that performing badly on a test will confirm people’s negative beliefs about the intelligence of their race, gender, culture, ethnicity, or other forms of identity, they are experiencing stereotype threat.
The effects of stereotype threat are especially evident in the classroom, but they can also follow an individual into the workplace and throughout the rest of their lives.
Steele and Aronson’s original study of this effect looked at black and white students’ performance on an academic test, specifically, a 30-minute test made up of items from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
Steele and Aronson chose this procedure in response to the racial stereotype that black students are less intelligent or less capable than white students.
Given this stereotype threat against black students’ academic abilities, the researchers hypothesized that when black students were primed with the belief that the test was diagnostic of intellectual ability, they would perform worse than white students.
Confirming their suspicions, Steele and Aronson’s findings showed that black participants underperformed white participants when the test was labeled diagnostic of intellectual ability, but they performed equally well when the test was labeled non-diagnostic (Steele et al., 1995).
By labeling the test as diagnostic of intelligence in the stereotype threat condition, the experiment effectively made black students more vulnerable to judgment about their race’s academic ability.
And so, with their mental energy being used up by doubt and fear of failure, their academic performance ironically worsens.
The original investigation of stereotype threat by Steele and Aronson in 1995 investigated the relationship between race and academic performance.
Since then, additional studies have evidenced the role of stereotype threat in negatively impacting the academic performance of black students (Osborne et al., 2001).
However, in addition to race, recall stereotype threat can result from negative stereotypes against any aspect of one’s identity, such as ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and more.
For instance, Spencer and colleagues showed stereotype threat might also underlie gender differences in advanced math performance (Spencer et al., 1999).
Based on the cultural belief that women have weaker math abilities, the researchers in this study hypothesized that reducing stereotype threat may help to eliminate gender differences in math performance.
In support of their hypothesis, their findings showed that when a math test was described as producing gender differences, women performed worse, but when the test was described as not producing gender differences, women performed equally as well.
Apart from race and gender, stereotype threat has also been extended to studies on the academic underperformance of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds.
In a study by Croizet and colleagues, the researchers showed that when a test was described as measuring intellectual ability, lower SES participants performed worse than higher SES participants, but this difference was eliminated when the test was labeled non-diagnostic (Croizet et al., 2021).
These findings strongly contest the cultural belief that members of lower SES backgrounds have the lesser intellectual ability. Instead, studies such as these show that societal stereotypes might in fact be holding people back from the academic achievement they might otherwise attain.
Be it race, gender, SES, or some other form of identity, examples of stereotype threat impacting the achievement of stigmatized groups are evident.
Theories of Stereotype Threat
As these examples show, stereotype threat is a very prevalent issue that exaggerates racial and gender disparities in performance, but what is it that actually causes this stereotype threat effect?
In recent adaptations of stereotype threat studies, researchers have connected stereotype threat to the idea of “belonging uncertainty,” which undermines an individual’s sense of social acceptance and identity (Walton et al., 2007).
The desire for social belonging is a basic human motivation, and members of stigmatized groups may be more uncertain of their social bonds than others.
Therefore, to establish a sense of belonging, individuals may do all they can to avoid the threat of embarrassment or failure that could come from confirming negative stereotypes about their identity.
Consistent with this idea, Inzlicht’s “stigma as ego depletion” theory further hypothesizes that stigma drains an individual’s self-regulatory resources, impairing their performance on following tasks (Inzlicht et al., 2006).
In this research, Inzlicht discusses how members of a stigmatized group may have fewer resources to regulate their actions or behaviors when they feel they are in a threatening or discriminatory environment.
In other words, one’s cognitive abilities can be thought of as a fuel tank that starts on full, but as people face discrimination or negative stereotypes, that fuel is used up by focusing on doubt or concern over their own abilities.
As a result, stigmatized individuals spend so much mental energy worrying about their own talents, skills, or capabilities that they do not have the mental energy left to reach their full potential in following tasks.
Stereotype Threat and the Achievement Gap
Stereotype threat is especially dangerous due to the far-reaching impacts it has not only on the individual but on society as a whole.
For instance, at the individual level, stereotype threat can increase anxiety and stress as people actively attempt to disprove negative stereotypes about themselves.
Faced with negative stereotypes and fear that they will confirm them, people might become more disengaged from certain subject fields or areas of interest.
By establishing this fear that one might confirm negative stereotypes about one’s group (such as lesser intellectual ability), stereotype threat may also lead to a lack of confidence, doubt, self-defeating behavior, and a disengaged attitude.
Ironically, these resulting negative behaviors could cause a self-fulfilling prophecy for the individual who ends up living up to that negative stereotype.
In fact, people might even change their entire career trajectory or aspirations to avoid the threat of failure that society assigns to their identity.
For instance, a woman who is interested in math might still choose to avoid a major or career in STEM for fear she will prove lesser than her male counterparts, resulting in a lower number of women in STEM fields.
At a societal level, the combined impacts of these stereotype threats lead to a culture in which people of certain groups or identities are handicapped from the start.
By creating a high cognitive load of vulnerabilities and doubt, stereotype threat can reduce academic focus and performance — contributing to the long-standing racial and gender gap in achievement.
For instance, standardized testing in school represents one such place where the effects of stereotype threat are especially striking.
Currently, exams such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE are crucial components of applications for higher education. And although there have been many arguments as to the unreliability of these exams and their inherent unfairness, most higher-education schools still require them in their admissions process.
Supporters of standardized tests argue these exams are meant to reflect academic ability and reasoning skills, but opponents say they probably measure access to opportunity more so than academic ability.
The apparent racial and SES gaps in SAT scores are evidence of standard test opponents’ claims, as white and affluent individuals continue to outperform black, Latinx, and lower-income students.
Given the value society places on standardized tests as being diagnostic of intellectual ability, it’s no wonder that stereotype threat might be at play in exaggerating these scoring gaps.
Furthermore, since test scores impact the opportunity and social mobility of stigmatized groups, inequalities in the SAT score distribution reflect and reinforce racial inequalities across generations (Reeves & Halikias, 2017).
As a result, the effects of stereotype threat today continue to contribute to the future of this long-standing achievement gap.
Beyond school, the effects of stereotype threat can also follow people into the workplace. Earlier, this paper discussed how entire career trajectories might be changed given the self-doubt caused by stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat can prevent people from applying for jobs, asking for promotions, or performing confidently within an organization. Additionally, workers who face negative stereotypes surrounding their performance or intellectual ability may exhibit greater anxiety, reduced effort, and less creativity on the job.
In addition to decreasing workplace performance or productivity, stereotype threat also plays a role in reducing the representation of stigmatized groups in corporations.
For instance, as stereotype threats follow people from academics into the workplace, there can be downstream impacts such as an inequality in the number of women in leadership positions and lower representation of ethnic minorities in CEO positions.
Therefore, the achievement gap exists not only in academics. Instead, it follows individuals into their careers and the rest of their lives.
How to Fight Stereotype Threat
Given the far-reaching impacts of stereotype threat, there has been much research on how to reduce its effects and help stigmatized populations succeed without fear of discrimination.
For starters, some interventions have shown that simply teaching people about stereotype threat reduces its effect.
In one study on women’s math performance, no significant difference in scores was found between men and women in the condition in which stereotype threat was explained (Johns et al., 2005).
This could potentially be due to the idea that teaching people about stereotype threat allows individuals to attribute anxiety and stress to external stereotypes rather than their own internalized doubt.
Additionally, educating students on a growth mindset (or the idea that intelligence is a learned and not a fixed trait) can majorly reduce stereotype threat.
In one study on this intervention, black students who were encouraged to view intelligence as a malleable trait reported greater enjoyment and engagement in academics, and they obtained higher grade point averages than control groups (Aronson et al., 2002).
By teaching intelligence as a trait that can be changed through one’s own effort and attention, a growth mindset makes students’ performances less vulnerable to stereotype threat, helping them maintain engagement with academics without doubting their abilities.
Drawing on this growth-mindset theory, self-affirmation interventions have also been proven to help fight the effects of stereotype threat. Self-affirmation refers to recognizing and asserting the value of oneself and their abilities.
In one study of this technique by Cohen and colleagues, black students were assigned a brief, in-class writing assignment reaffirming their personal adequacy.
As a result of this assignment, students’ grades significantly improved, reducing the racial achievement gap by forty percent (Cohen et al. 2006). By helping students acknowledge their own abilities and talents, self-affirmation assignments such as these can work wonders in building students’ confidence and overcoming internalized stereotypes.
Finally, role models can play a valuable role in reducing stereotype threat.
One study on role models showed that when college women first read about women who had succeeded in architecture, law, medicine, and invention, they performed significantly better on a difficult mathematics test (McIntyre et al., 2003).
The importance of this study is that it shows that representation doesn’t have to mean physical exposure to counter-stereotypical role models. Instead, increasing representation and fighting negative stereotypes in television, movies, or literature can also have the desired effect of changing public perception of stigmatized groups.
Furthermore, exposure to these counter-stereotypical role models at an early age can influence aspirations, career choices, and confidence in children, which can be carried through adulthood.
By implementing these measures, academic institutions and workplaces can make an effort to fight the threat of stereotypes and build a fairer and less discriminatory society moving forward.
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