What Is Stereotype Threat?

The Negative Effects of Worrying About Confirming a Stereotype

Students are seated in rows in a large lecture hall.

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Stereotype threat occurs when a person is worried about behaving in a way that confirms negative stereotypes about members of their group. This added stress can end up impacting how they actually perform in a particular situation. For example, a woman might feel nervous when taking a math test because of stereotypes about women in math courses, or worry that receiving a poor grade will cause others to think that women don’t have high levels of math ability.

Key Takeaways: Stereotype Threat

  • When people worry that their behavior might confirm a stereotype about a group they are part of, they experience stereotype threat.
  • Researchers have suggested that the stress of experiencing stereotype threat can potentially reduce one’s score on a standardized test or grade in a challenging course.
  • When people are able to reflect on an important value—a process called self-affirmation—the effects of stereotype threat are attenuated.

Definition of Stereotype Threat

When people are aware of a negative stereotype about their group, they often worry that their performance on a particular task might end up confirming other people’s beliefs about their group. Psychologists use the term stereotype threat to refer to this state in which people are worried about confirming a group stereotype.

Stereotype threat can be stressful and distracting for people who experience it. For example, when someone is taking a difficult test, stereotype threat can prevent them from focusing on the test and giving it their full attention—which may lead them to receive a lower score than they would have without distractions.

This phenomenon is thought to be situation specific: people only experience it when they are in a setting where a negative stereotype about their group is salient to them. For example, a woman might experience stereotype threat in a math or computer science class, but wouldn’t be expected to experience it in a humanities course. (Although stereotype threat is often studied in the context of academic achievement, it’s important to note that it can happen in other domains as well.)

Key Studies

In a famous study on the consequences of stereotype threat, researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson caused some participants to experience stereotype threat before taking a difficult vocabulary test. The students who experienced stereotype threat were asked to indicate their race on a questionnaire before the test, and their scores were compared to other students who did not have to answer a question about race. The researchers found that black students who were asked about their race performed worse on the vocabulary test—they scored lower than white students and lower than black students who were not asked about their race.

Importantly, when students were not asked about their race, there was no statistically significant difference between the scores of black and white students. In other words, the stereotype threat experienced by black students caused them to perform worse on the test. However, when the source of threat was taken away, they received similar scores to white students.

Psychologist Steven Spencer and his colleagues have examined how stereotypes about women in STEM fields could impact women’s scores on a math test. In one study, male and female undergraduate students took a difficult math test. However, the experimenters varied what participants were told about the test. Some participants were told that men and women scored differently on the test; other participants were told that men and women scored equally well on the test they were about to take (in actuality, all participants were given the same test).

When participants expected a gender difference in test scores, stereotype threat kicked in—female participants scored lower than male participants. However, when participants were told that the test did not have a gender bias, female participants did just as well as male participants. In other words, our test scores don’t just reflect our academic ability—they also reflect our expectations and the social context around us.

When the female participants were placed under a condition of stereotype threat, their scores were lower—but this gender difference was not found when participants were not under threat.

Impact of Stereotype Threat Research

The research on stereotype complements research on microaggressions and bias in higher education, and it helps us better understand the experiences of marginalized groups. For example, Spencer and his colleagues suggest that repeated experiences with stereotype threat may, over time, cause women to dis-identify with math—in other words, women may choose to take classes in other majors in order to avoid the stereotype threat they experience in math classes.

As a result, stereotype threat could potentially explain why some women choose not to pursue careers in STEM. Stereotype threat research has also had a significant impact on society—it has lead to educational interventions aimed at reducing stereotype threat, and Supreme Court cases have even mentioned stereotype threat.

However, the topic of stereotype threat is not without criticism. In a 2017 interview with Radiolab, social psychologist Michael Inzlicht points out that researchers have not always been able to replicate the results of classic research studies on stereotype threat. Even though stereotype threat has been the topic of numerous research studies, psychologists are still conducting more research to determine exactly how stereotype threat affects us.

Self-Affirmation: Mitigating the Effects of Stereotype Threat

Although stereotype threat can have negative consequences for individuals, researchers have found that psychological interventions can mitigate some of the effects of stereotype threat. In particular, an intervention known as a self-affirmation is one way of reducing these effects.

Self-affirmation is based on the idea that we all want to see ourselves as good, capable, and ethical people, and we feel the need to respond in some way when we feel our self-image is threatened. However, an important lesson in self-affirmation theory is that people don’t need to respond to a threat directly—instead, reminding ourselves of something else we’re doing well can make us less threatened.

For example, if you are worried about a poor grade on a test, you might remind yourself of other things that are important to you—perhaps your favorite hobbies, your close friends, or your love of particular books and music. After reminding yourself about these other things that are also important to you, the poor test grade is no longer quite as stressful.

In research studies, psychologists often have participants engage in self-affirmation by having them think about a personal value that is important and meaningful to them. In a set of two studies, middle school students were asked to complete an exercise at the beginning of the school year where they wrote about values. The crucial variable was that students in the self-affirmation group wrote about one or more values that they had previously identified as being personally relevant and important for them. Participants in the comparison group wrote about one or more values that they had identified as being relatively unimportant (participants wrote about why someone else might care about these values).

The researchers found that black students who completed the self-affirmation tasks ended up getting better grades than black students who completed the control tasks. Moreover, the self-affirmation intervention was able to decrease the gap between the grades of black and white students.

In a 2010 study, researchers also found that self-affirmation was able to reduce the achievement gap between men and women in a college physics course. In the study, women who wrote about a value that was important to them tended to receive higher grades, compared to women who had written about a value that was relatively unimportant to them. In other words, self-affirmation may be able to reduce the effects of stereotype threat on test performance.

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