Prejudice is still alive and well in many areas of our society. And one mechanism that keeps prejudice alive is the perception of the accuracy of negative stereotypes. For instance, before slavery was made illegal in the US, slave owners would sometimes justify slavery by stating that God made black people less intelligent and more suited for manual labour.1 And of course, when they looked around, this perception was justified, since slaves with no formal education and with many years of performing manual labour generally fit the stereotype. Thus, a feedback loop was formed, where the stereotype supported the system, and the system supported the stereotype.
Stereotypes, of course, still exist today, and they can still have similar feedback effects. Stereotype threat is a common phenomenon that can reinforce these stereotypes. Thus, greater knowledge about what stereotype threat is, how it works, and how it can be prevented can provide important insight that may help to break the negative effects that stereotypes can bring. So I’d like to present a brief summary of stereotype threat.
What Is Stereotype Threat?
Stereotype threat is the anxiety that can result from a situation where a person might potentially confirm a negative stereotype. For example, there is a negative stereotype that says Black people have lower intelligence than other races. So, when a Black person takes a test, for example, he or she is under pressure not just to succeed to prove his or her own ability, but also to prove the ability of the entire racial group.2 Similarly, there is a negative stereotype that women are not as good as men at mathematics. So when a woman takes a math test, she can be put under added pressure to disconfirm the stereotype.3 This pressure is not always conscious, of course, but can still lie under the surface. As a result of this added stress, these stereotyped individuals can actually perform worse on the test than they might have otherwise done. Stereotype threat causes them to be more self-conscious about their own performance, and also to try to suppress negative thoughts, both of which take extra mental energy. In comparison, a White man would not generally have this added pressure when taking a math test, which leaves his mind free to fully focus on the task.
The astounding thing about stereotype threat is just how easily it can be triggered. For example, in a study by Steele and Aronson (1995), Black participants performed significantly worse on a sample SAT if they were told it was diagnostic of their intellectual ability, as compared to being told it was “a laboratory tool for studying problem-solving.”4 Similar results were found by Spencer, Steele, and Quinn (1999) with women. They gave women a sample GRE math test, and women fared significantly worse when they were told that the test had shown gender differences in the past, as compared to when they were told it had never shown gender differences. ((Spencer, Steele, & Quinn (1999).)) With just a few words, then, researchers were able to trigger stereotype threat and cause significant decreases in performance. One other common method that studies have used to trigger stereotype threat is as simple as getting participants to identify their gender or race at the top of the page before beginning the test. This in itself is enough to cause performance to drop.
Who Is Susceptible?
While much of the research on stereotype threat has focused on African-Americans and women, other studies have demonstrated that stereotype threat can occur in a large variety of situations, to a large variety of people. For example, Koenig and Eagly (2005) found that men could experience stereotype threat when given a test of social sensitivity.5 Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, and Darley (1999) demonstrated an effect of stereotype threat on White participants on a test involving athletic ability. When framing a golf game as a test of “natural athletic ability”, White participants performed much worse than when it was described as a test designed to measure “sports intelligence”.6 Shih, Pittinsky, and Ambady (1999) studied Asian-American women, and found that they did better on a math test when their race was emphasized (a positive stereotype regarding Asians and math), and did worse when their gender was emphasized (a negative stereotype regarding women and math).7 In short, it seems that stereotype threat is not limited to certain groups; it is available to any group for which there exists a negative stereotype—which is virtually any group.
Instead of stereotype threat being linked to certain stereotyped groups, what instead seems to be most important are the characteristics of the individual in question. There are a number of personal factors which can affect the degree of stereotype threat someone experiences. First, stereotype threat is stronger for individuals who more strongly identify with the stereotyped group. That seems fairly straight-forward. A person who strongly identifies with Black culture will likely feel more threatened about Black stereotypes than someone who only weakly identifies with this culture. Second, stereotype threat also increases for individuals who more strongly identify with the task at hand. Thus, somewhat perversely, a woman who actually has a great degree of math ability will tend to face more stereotype threat than a woman who is, indeed, bad at math. This might seem counter-intuitive, but for the woman who is good at math (and enjoys math), the stakes are higher—she has more of her self-identity wrapped up in math abilities, and thus faces more pressure to succeed. Third, stereotype threat is greater for individuals who have a stronger desire to do well on the task. Like the second factor, the desire to succeed creates additional pressure that can amplify the effects of a negative stereotype.8
What Are the Long-Term Effects?
Because the above-mentioned personal factors are largely wrapped up in issues of self-esteem and self-identity, stereotype threat can have extensive long-term effects. Over the long run, continued stereotype threat can cause people to distance themselves either from the domain in question,9 or from the stereotyped group.10 Thus, for example, some Black children (and again, especially those who actually have strong academic abilities) may begin to place less emphasis on their academic skills and form their identities around other domains instead. Or, alternately, they may place less emphasis on Black culture and instead form their identity around perceived “White” traits. Either one of these responses is a coping mechanism designed to protect their self-esteem from the long-term effects of stereotype threat.
Unfortunately, even for those who continue on in a stereotyped domain, the threat rarely diminishes as time goes on. As an individual moves up to higher levels of achievement, the challenges and pressure to succeed become greater, so that the threat is amplified. This is evident from the personal factors listed above. The individual’s identity becomes more closely linked to the domain, and the desire to do well also increases. Thus, certain domains (such as math and science for women) can develop a selective pressure, where the negatively stereotyped individuals slowly diminish in number as the challenge increases. And of course, as the numbers dwindle, this reinforces the stereotype, and leaves the remaining individuals more isolated and aware of just how stereotyped they are.
What Can Be Done?
Although stereotype threat is a persistent problem, there are measures that can be taken to diminish its effects. Obviously the clearest way is to challenge the stereotype. When such stereotypes are cast aside, the effects they produce can only decrease. But such a tactic is difficult when, as mentioned in the introduction, they are reinforced by their apparent truth in reality. Because of the effects of stereotype threat (as well as other social factors), there really are few women in math programs; this makes it easy to believe that this is a result of inferior math abilities in women. So clearly, stereotype threat must be targeted specifically, in addition to ongoing social pressures against stereotypes as a whole.
Fortunately, research has indicated several promising methods that can reduce stereotype threat. One method, revealed by Johns, Schmader, and Martens (2005), is to teach chronically stereotyped groups about stereotype threat.11 By simply teaching women ahead of time about stereotype threat and the anxiety it can cause, they were able to eliminate gender differences on a math test. Another method by Aronson, Fried, and Good (2002) involves teaching individuals about the malleability of intelligence and of academic skills.12 By reinforcing the notion that academic skills can be improved with effort, the researchers noted a significant increase in the GPA of Black students almost 9 weeks later. The Black participants also reported more enjoyment of academics and stronger attitudes about the importance of academics. Clearly, emphasizing the importance of intelligence as a skill that can be improved rather than an innate quality can have positive effects, and it is likely that an emphasis on this during the formative years of children would reap effects that were even longer-lasting.
A third method, demonstrated by Cohen et al. (2006), is self-affirmation.13 This method involves a brief writing exercise where participants indicate the values that are most important to them, and then write about why they care about these values. This simple task was able to decrease the achievement gap between White and Black students by almost 40%, over the course of a school term. Affirming one’s values seems to be an excellent boost to one’s self-esteem, which can act as an inoculation against stereotype threat (as well as other threats to self-esteem).
Finally, by reducing test bias, stereotype threat can be reduced for a given task as well. (Keep in mind that not all tests are academic. Evaluations of performance occur in many areas of life.) The most obvious way to begin is simply to make a fair test. By removing bias in the way the questions are asked, or in the examples or answer choices used, one can remove elements that might trigger thoughts about negative stereotypes. Removing such bias from tests is more difficult than one might think, however, so a test which is of any importance in decision-making (on issues of hiring and firing, for example) should be thoroughly tested on numerous demographic groups and properly analyzed by professionals who are familiar with test construction and validation. Beyond this, however, there are several simple changes that can be made to tests. If you don’t need demographic information, don’t ask for it. And if you do, ask for it at the end of the test rather than the beginning, so you do not remind individuals of relevant stereotypes. If possible, present the test as non-diagnostic; in other words, present it as an investigation of a specific concept, rather than as a measure of one’s skills. (But of course, don’t lie to them if it really is a measure of their skills!) And finally, remind the test-takers of the fairness of the test. If you have used the test before and found no differences in gender or race, mention this fact. Any method that will ease the anxiety about possibly-relevant stereotypes is an excellent thing to do.14
Stereotypes can be a persistent problem with no easy solution. Their effects can change the entire trajectory of people’s lives, and yet often they are simply accepted without question. But in the interest of creating a society built on individual freedoms, equality of opportunity, and maximizing human potential, we must do what we can to challenge damaging stereotypes. As a situational factor and one that has attracted the interest of much research, stereotype threat may be the weak link in the feedback loop which perpetuates stereotypes. By becoming aware of stereotype threat, by analyzing the attitudes that we hold, and by ensuring that testers and evaluators make the necessary changes in their practices, we can make a significant difference in the next generation.
- For a brief summary of justifications used for slavery as well as additional sources, see Thompson, A. (2003). Scientific racism: The justification of slavery and segregated education in America. Gaines Junction, 1(1). The article can be found here, and the journal can be found here. [↩]
- Steele, C.M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Steele & Aronson (1995). [↩]
- Koenig, A.M., & Eagly, A.H. (2005). Stereotype threat in men on a test of social sensitivity. Sex Roles, 52(7/8), 489-496. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Stone, J., Lynch, C.I., Sjomeling, M., & Darley, J.M. (1999). Stereotype threat effects on Black and White athletic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1213-1227. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Shih, M., Pittinsky, T.L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10(1), 80-83. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Steele, C.M., Spencer, S.J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 379-440. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Major, B., Spencer, S., Schmader, T., Wolfe, C., & Crocker, J. (1998). Coping with negative stereotypes about intellectual performance: The role of psychological disengagement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(1), 34-50. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Steele & Aronson (1995). [↩]
- Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science, 16(3), 175-179. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Aronson, J., Fried, C.B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125. The article can be found here. [↩]
- Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307-1310. The article can be found here. [↩]
- For those that would like more information on what they can do to reduce stereotype threat, Reducing Stereotype Threat is a great resource. [↩]