Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is the fear that one's behaviour will confirm an existing stereotype of a group with which one identifies. This fear can sometimes affect performance.


Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group. The idea of stereotype threat was first identified by psychologist Claude Steele. Stereotype threat states that when a fixed biological characteristic (eg race, gender) is emphasized before a given test, subsequent test performance is adversely affected:

“culturally-shared stereotypes suggesting poor performance of certain groups can, when made salient in a context involving the stereotype, disrupt performance of an individual who identifies with that group” [ [ ] ] (Steele, Aronson 1995).

Although Steele, and his colleague Aronson, focused on the emphasis on race affecting test performance, similar studies have demonstrated the same results for emphasis on gender. In other studies, researchers found that “consistent exposure to stereotype threat (e.g., faced by some ethnic minorities in academic environments and women in math) can reduce the degree to which individuals value the domain in question” [ [ ] ] (Aronson, et al. 2002; Osborne, 1995; Steele, 1997). Also, research has found that there are varying degrees of an individual on a certain group to be affected by stereotype threat:

…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 (

Further research has also found that when an individual identifies with a specific group, performance can be negatively affected, because of concerns that they will, in fact, confirm the negative stereotypes of that group.



During the 1960’s, psychologist Irwin Katz suggested that stereotypes could influence performance on IQ tests. Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ subtest, if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks. ["Review of Evidence Relating to Effects of Desegregation on the Intellectual Performance of Negroes" I Katz - American Psychologist, 1964] Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores. [ [,9171,902708,00.html Race and IQ] TIME. Monday, Sep. 07, 1970]

The phenomenon was later examined by the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who articulated the mechanism of "stereotype threat" that contributes to test performance of minority groups. In one such study, Steele and Aronson (1995) administered the Graduate Record Examination to European American and African American students. Half of each group was told that their intelligence was being measured, while the other half didn't know what the test was measuring. The European American students performed almost equally in the two conditions of the experiment. African Americans, in contrast, performed far worse than they otherwise would have when they were told their intelligence was being measured. The researchers concluded this was because stereotype threat made the students anxious about confirming the stereotype regarding African American IQ. The researchers found that the difference was even more noticeable when race was emphasized.

"When capable black college students fail to perform as well as their white counterparts, the explanation often has less to do with preparation or ability than with the threat of stereotypes about their capacity to succeed."
- Claude M. Steele, The Atlantic Monthly, August 1999 " [ Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students] "

Steele and Aronson write that making race salient when taking a test of cognitive ability negatively affected high-ability African American students. [cite journal |author=Steele CM, Aronson J |title=Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans |journal=J Pers Soc Psychol |volume=69 |issue=5 |pages=797–811 |year=1995 |month=November |pmid=7473032 |doi=10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797 |url=] Steele writes that the stigma of being African American is still relevant, as it has an effect on the educational outcomes of African Americans. Stereotypes such as: Asian Americans excelling in mathematics, or African Americans always testing poorly, can be extremely harmful. Stereotype threats can seriously alter academic achievement and motivation. [ [ Racial Identity and Academic Achievement] ]

In a paper prepared for APA convention, Steele writes: "Thus the predicament of 'stereotype vulnerability': The group members then know that anything about them or anything they do that fits the stereotype can be taken as confirming it as self-characteristic, in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in their own eyes. This vulnerability amounts to a jeopardy of double devaluation: once for whatever bad thing the stereotype-fitting behavior or feature would say about anyone, and again for its confirmation of the bad things alleged in the stereotype."


Stereotype threat has been identified as a possible influence on the differences between males and females in mathematical achievement. It is stereotypically suggested that men have stronger abilities in mathematics than women. Several studies have been completed to explore this situation, by examining the role of stereotype threat. Cadinu, and her team of researchers, investigated how negative thoughts could create performance deficits under stereotype threat. The 60 female participants were placed in either a stereotype threat condition, or a no-threat condition, and then asked to complete a math test. Results showed that women under the stereotype threat reported more negative thoughts related to the test and mathematics, when compared to the no-threat condition. It was also found that stereotype threat created a decrease in performance, which correlated to an increase in negative thinking. [cite journal |author=Cadinu M, Maass A, Rosabianca A, Kiesner J |title=Why do women underperform under stereotype threat? Evidence for the role of negative thinking |journal=Psychol Sci |volume=16 |issue=7 |pages=572–8 |year=2005 |month=July |pmid=16008792 |doi=10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01577.x |url=] Once studies indicated that stereotype threat could be an influence on the gap between men and women in mathematical achievement, strategies began to develop to help women cope with this phenomenon. Researchers discovered that informing women about stereotype threat is a useful method of improving their performance in testing. cite journal |author=Johns M, Schmader T, Martens A |title=Knowing is half the battle: teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women's math performance |journal=Psychol Sci |volume=16 |issue=3 |pages=175–9 |year=2005 |month=March |pmid=15733195 |doi=10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00799.x |url=] In a study by Johns, men and women completed difficult math problems described as either a problem-solving test, or a math test. Johns and his researchers created a third group to complete the problems, but informed the participants that stereotype threat could affect women’s performance on the test. They discovered that women performed worse than men on the test when not informed about stereotype threat, but didn't differ when aware of the threat. Furthermore, other studies have tried to identify other strategies to help female students manage the stereotype threat. McGlone and Aronson studied three different approaches: a control message, encouraging perseverance; a suppression message, telling participants to suppress negative thoughts; and a replacement message, describing to the participants an alternate self-relevant positive stereotype. They found a gap between the women in the control group and the men; however, that gap widened when participants tried to suppress negative thinking associated with stereotype threat, but narrowed when a positive stereotype was presented. [Forewarning and forearming stereotype-threatened students. McGlone, Matthew; Aronson, Joshua. Communication Education, Vol 56(2), Apr 2007. pp. 119-133.]

Several studies have shown that negative stereotypes can undermine women’s performance in tests, particularly math tests. Catherine Good’s field study of men and women in a college level mathematics course demonstrated that, although these students were all considered to be “highly motivated”, stereotype threat still affected women’s scores. In one group, the women were given a “stereotype-nullifying” presentation, and women’s scores were far higher than the men’s scores. When another group was given the test under normal conditions, men and women’s scores were equal [ [Good, Catherine. "Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women's achievement in high-level math courses". Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Vol 29(1), Jan-Feb 2008. pp. 17-28.] ] .

In Amy Keifer’s study on examining how the implicit stereotypes about mathematical performance for women affects their susceptibility to stereotype threat, she found that “women who showed less implicit math-gender stereotyping showed the largest performance difference across experimental conditions” [ [ Kiefer, Amy K. "Implicit stereotypes and women's math performance: How implicit gender-math stereotypes influence women's susceptibility to stereotype threat". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 43(5), Sep 2007. pp. 825-832.] ] .

A recent study, involving male and female chess players in an anonymous tournament, revealed that women played more poorly than their rated strength, when told that they would be playing men, and that "recent studies had shown that men earn clearly superior scores than women in chess games". Women who were told (either truthfully or falsely), that they were playing against other women, performed as their ratings would predict. [ [Maass, A. et al., "Checkmate? The Role of Gender Stereotypes in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport," European Journal of Social Psychology (March/April 2008).] ]

Physiological responses

Stereotype threat can result in physiological responses, since the pressure and fear caused by negative stereotypes is so great. For example, a study by Blascovich J, Spencer SJ, Quinn D and Steele C. found that African Americans under stereotype threat exhibited larger increases in arterial blood pressure during an academic test, and performed more poorly on difficult test items. Some researchers feel this may explain the higher death rates from hypertension-related disorders among African Americans. [cite journal |author=Blascovich J, Spencer SJ, Quinn D, Steele C |title=African Americans and high blood pressure: the role of stereotype threat |journal=Psychol Sci |volume=12 |issue=3 |pages=225–9 |year=2001 |month=May |pmid=11437305 |doi=10.1111/1467-9280.00340 |url=] A study by Toni Schmader and Michael Johns found that stereotype threat can effectively reduce working memory capacity, another factor in poor test performance. [cite journal |author=Schmader T, Johns M |title=Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity |journal=J Pers Soc Psychol |volume=85 |issue=3 |pages=440–52 |year=2003 |month=September |pmid=14498781 |doi=10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.440 |url=] Stereotype threat may undermine intellectual performance by triggering a disruptive mental load. Studies have found increased heart rates for test subject operating under stereotype threat. [cite journal |author=Croizet JC, Després G, Gauzins ME, Huguet P, Leyens JP, Méot A |title=Stereotype threat undermines intellectual performance by triggering a disruptive mental load |journal=Pers Soc Psychol Bull |volume=30 |issue=6 |pages=721–31 |year=2004 |month=June |pmid=15155036 |doi=10.1177/0146167204263961 |url=]

Interpreting stereotype threat

The stereotype threat phenomenon has been confirmed in over one hundred scientific journal articles (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002; see While the findings show that stereotypes may play a role in test score achievement gaps, they do not necessarily show that stereotypes are the entire source of the gaps. Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J. Cullen write that stereotype threat research has often been misinterpreted in the media, psychology textbooks, and the scholarly literature as showing that eliminating stereotype threat completely eliminates the difference in test performance between European American and African American individuals. [cite journal |author=Sackett PR, Hardison CM, Cullen MJ |title=On interpreting stereotype threat as accounting for African American-White differences on cognitive tests |journal=Am Psychol |volume=59 |issue=1 |pages=7–13 |year=2004 |month=January |pmid=14736315 |doi=10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.7 |url=] They worry that this misinterpretation will shift the focus in public policy on closing the gap away from deeper systemic issues of racism, sexism and inequality. In their own words:

Our concern about the misinterpretation that removing threat from a testing setting eliminates African American– White differences is that such misinterpretation has the potential to wrongly lead to the belief that there is less need for research and intervention aimed at a broad range of potential contributing factors, such as differences in educational and economic opportunities of African American and White youth. If group differences in scores on the SAT and other tests were largely explainable by the mind-set with which examinees approach the testing situation, it would then follow that differences in factors such as quality of instruction or per-pupil educational expenditure do not matter much in terms of achievement in the domains measured by high-stakes tests. Hence, caution in interpretation of threat research is warranted.

Furthermore, while Sackett et al. do not dispute the fact that stereotype threat has a real, measurable effect on test scores, they posit that in the part of the experiment where Steele and Aronson removed the stereotype threat, the "achievement gap which did remain" correlated closely with the existing African American - White achievement gap on large-scale standardized testing such as the SAT. In their own words:

Thus, rather than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the large score gap on standardized tests, the research actually shows something very different. Specifically, absent stereotype threat, the African American-White difference is just what one would expect based on the African American-White difference in SAT scores, whereas in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is "larger" than would be expected based on the difference in SAT scores.

In subsequent correspondence between Sackett et al. and Steele and Aronson, Sackett et al. wrote that "They [Steele and Aronson] agree that it is a misinterpretation of the Steele and Aronson (1995) results to conclude that eliminating stereotype threat eliminates the African American-White test-score gap." [ [ On the Value of Correcting Mischaracterizations of Stereotype Threat Research] ]

In an editorial article entitled [ "The Threat in the Air"] , which was published on April 18, 2004 in the Wall Street Journal, professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School was highly critical of what she sees as Steele and Aronson's presentation of their research. She was also skeptical of what she sees as claims about the real-world effect of stereotype threat on the black-white achievement gap.

Practical applications

The theory has generated a good deal of intervention work, some of which has boosted the achievement and test scores of low performing minority students. ["Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence." Aronson, J, Fried, C and Good, C. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38.2 (March 2002): p113(13).] Since stereotype threat appears to be one key contributing factors to the gaps in test scores, researchers Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, and Allison Master proposed intervention methods to address the problem in 2006. The intervention, a brief in-class writing assignment, significantly improved the grades of African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40%. These results suggest that the racial achievement gap, a major social concern in the United States, could be ameliorated by the use of timely and targeted social-psychological interventions. [cite journal |author=Cohen GL, Garcia J, Apfel N, Master A |title=Reducing the racial achievement g

ee also

*Psychometrics of racism
*Self-fulfilling prophecy
*Acting white
*Race and intelligence
*Sex and intelligence


*Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2005). "Social Psychology (5th ed.)." Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

*Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. " Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35," 29-46.

*cite journal |author=Sackett PR, Hardison CM, Cullen MJ |title=On interpreting stereotype threat as accounting for African American-White differences on cognitive tests |journal=Am Psychol |volume=59 |issue=1 |pages=7–13 |year=2004 |month=January |pmid=14736315 |doi=10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.7 |url=

*cite journal |author=Steele CM, Aronson J |title=Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans |journal=J Pers Soc Psychol |volume=69 |issue=5 |pages=797–811 |year=1995 |month=November |pmid=7473032 |doi=10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797 |url=

*Steele, C. M., Spencer, S., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group

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