What is stereotype threat?

stereotype threat

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. 

Similar effects had been reported earlier by Katz, Roberts, and Robinson (1965), but Steele and Aronson’s (1995) paper prompted a renewed exploration of the causes and consequences of stereotype threat. To date, over 300 experiments on stereotype threat have been published in peer-reviewed journals (see Nguyen & Ryan, 2008 and Walton & Cohen, 2003 for meta-analyses). The purpose of the website is to provide a summary and overview of published research on this topic in the hope that increasing understanding of the phenomenon may reduce its occurrence and impact. 

Since Steele and Aronson’s (1995) paper, research in stereotype threat has broadened in several important respects. First, research has shown that the consequences of stereotype threat extend beyond underachievement on academic tasks.  For example, it can lead to self-handicapping strategies, such as reduced practice time for a task (Stone, 2002), and to reduced sense of belonging to the stereotyped domain (Good, Dweck, & Rattan, 2008). In addition, consistent exposure to stereotype threat (e.g., faced by some ethnic minorities in academic environments and women in math) can reduce the degree that individuals value the domain in question. In education, it can also lead students to choose not to pursue the domain of study and, consequently, limit the range of professions that they can pursue. Therefore, the long-term effects of stereotype threat might contribute to educational and social inequality. Furthermore, stereotype threat has been shown to affect stereotyped individuals’ performance in a number of domains beyond academics, such as white men in sports, women in negotiation, homosexual men in providing childcare, and women in driving.

Second, research has given us a better understanding of who is most vulnerable to stereotype threat.  Research has shown that stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance. For example, stereotype threat has been shown to harm the academic performance of Hispanics, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Croizet & Claire, 1998), females in math, and even white males when faced with the specter of Asian superiority in math.  In addition, research also demonstrates that within a stereotyped group, some members may be more vulnerable to its negative consequences than others; factors such as the strength of one’s group identification or domain identification have been shown to be related to ones’ subsequent vulnerability to stereotype threat.

Third, research has extended its reach to understanding the situations that are most likely to lead to stereotype threat. In general, the conditions that produce stereotype threat are ones in which a highlighted stereotype implicates the self though association with a relevant social category. When one views oneself in terms of a salient group membership (e.g., “I am a woman, women are not expected to be good at math, and this is a difficult math test”), performance can be undermined because of concerns about possibly confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group. Thus, situations that increase the salience of the stereotyped group identity can increase vulnerability to stereotype threat.

Fourth, of particular interest to researchers and practitioners are the mechanisms behind stereotype threat. How, specifically, do negative stereotypes lead to the demonstrated consequences? Although the research is not entirely clear on this question, we are beginning to better understand the moderators and mediators of stereotype threat. For example, recent research has shown that stereotype threat can reduce working memory resources, ultimately undermining one’s ability to successfully complete complex intellectual tasks. This and other mechanisms are discussed within the pages of this site.

Fifth, because stereotype threat has proven to be such a pernicious factor affecting stereotyped individuals’ achievement and identities, researchers have turned their attention toward understanding methods of reducing its negative effects. Methods range from in-depth interventions to teach students about the malleable nature of intelligence to simple changes in classroom practices that can be easily implemented by the instructor, such as ensuring gender-fair testing.

As with any developing body of research, various issues remain unresolved and criticisms have emerged.