The primary purpose of this paper is to explicate stereotype threat, the processes that create stereotype threat, the responses of those who experience it, possible consequences of stereotype threat, and potentially effective remediation strategies for reducing stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat is an “immediate situational threat that derives from the broad dissemination of negative stereotypes about one’s group – the threat of possibly being judged and treated stereotypically, or of possibly self-fulfilling such a stereotype” (Steele & Aronson, 1995, p. 798). This threat is self-evaluative in nature, can be experienced by any person from an in-group for which there are known negative stereotypes, and may occur even if the person experiencing the threat does not believe in the negative stereotypes (Aronson & McGlone, 2009; Inzlicht & Kang, 2010; Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Research has demonstrated that those under stereotype threat experience cognitive deficits, physiological stress, and often, spillover effects into other aspects not immediate to the situation in which the threat was initially created (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). Although stereotype threat has the most critical relevance to individuals in certain stigmatized groups, development of an understanding of stereotype threat benefits all because no one person is immune to experiencing it, evaluative situations inherent to its development are common lifelong experiences, and stereotype threat is linked to serious negative consequences and effects, both short-term and long-term.
Creating Stereotype Threat
Stereotype threat occurs as the result of several factors. According to Schmader et al., (2008) “all situations of stereotype threat involve activation of three core concepts: the concept of one’s in-group, the concept of the ability domain in question, and the self-concept…stereotype threat as stemming from a situationally induced state of imbalance between these implied propositional links that the individual is motivated to, and struggles to, resolve” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 338).
First, an individual must be from an in-group negatively stereotyped in the relevant domain and the individual must be aware of the negative stereotype. “Cues in the environment signal a negative propositional relation between one’s concept of the in-group and ability in a given domain such that the group is defined as deficient in that context” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 338). For instance, the negative stereotype that men are better than women at math has no bearing on male students at a male only school taking their SATs. However, in a mixed gender environment, females taking a difficult mathematic exam could experience stereotype threat if they are aware of that particular negative stereotype.
Second, the negative stereotypes must be primed and/or activated relevant to the situational context the individual is placed within. “Cues in the environment make salient one’s membership in the stigmatized group by activating a positive link between one’s concept of self and one’s concept of the group such that the self is defined in terms of group membership in that context” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 339). Negative stereotypes may be primed in a variety of ways. For instance, research evidences simply requiring identifying oneself from a particular ethnic group is capable of triggering stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Typical research scenarios prime negative stereotypes with the indication that the situation is evaluative or diagnostic of the ability negatively stereotyped. For instance, researchers indicating to subjects that the math exam is diagnostic of intellectual capabilities to women in a mixed gender environment, or to African Americans in a mixed ethnic environment (Aronson & McGlone, 2009). However, negative stereotypes may also be primed implicitly simply by having an out-group researcher provide instructions to the subjects (Stone & McWhinnie, 2008).
Third, the individual must identify the ability or domain as part of their self-concept. There must be a “positive propositional relation primed between self and domain such that the self-concept is associated with doing well in that context because of either an expectation of success or a strong motivation to excel” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 339). For example, there is a difference between a female secretary taking a math test with a room full of male engineers and a female engineer taking a math test with a room full of male engineers. The latter case is likely to induce stereotype threat because the female engineer probably believes she is highly capable in mathematics, whereas the former female secretary would be less inclined to believe she would do as well as male engineers. As another example, a common gender stereotype is that women take a long time in the bathroom getting ready for the day. Evaluating men and women on how long it takes them to beautify themselves or be presentable would meet the conditions of priming gender and evaluating differences between the two genders, but would fall short of being recognized by males as part of their self-concept relative to the ability domain. Thus, this situation would be unlikely to create stereotype threat in males.
Lastly, the ability, domain, and/or situational context must be evaluative in nature relative to the negative stereotype in question. The research is replete with examples of subjects in diagnostic conditions evidencing stereotype threat, while the subjects in nondiagnostic conditions evidenced no stereotype threat (Aronson & McGlone, 2009; Steele & Aronson, 1995).
Responses to Stereotype Threat
“Stereotype threat is triggered by situations that pose a significant threat to self-integrity, the sense of oneself as a coherent and valued entity that is adaptable to the environment…the state of imbalance acts as an acute stressor that sets in motion physiological manifestations of stress, cognitive monitoring and interpretative processes, affective processes, and efforts to cope with these aversive experiences” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 337).
As outlined by Schmader, et al. (2008), there are myriad responses to stereotype threat inclusive of cognitive reductions, physiological stress, and emotional coping responses.
Executive Function. The dual process model posits two reasons for poor performance under stereotype threat: (1) Reduction in working memory resulting from cognitive overload and emotional resources processing ambiguous stimuli / cues for bias or prejudice, resulting in poor task performance; and, (2) Reduction in automated task processing resulting from prevention focus orientation aimed at reducing mistakes and failure avoidance (confirmation of stereotype) (Stone & McWhinnie, 2008). “The pattern of evidence suggests that stereotype threat degrades the ability to regulate attention during complex tasks where it is necessary to coordinate information processing online and inhibit thoughts, feelings, and behaviors counterproductive to one’s current goals… executive functioning or working memory” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 340).
Physiological Responses. Research has evidenced subjects under stereotype threat experience a variety of physiological responses indicated of increased stress, such as increased blood pressure, cardiac output, elevated cortisol levels, and greater SNS activation in females (Schmader et al., 2008). These physiological responses to the stressful impact of stereotype threat “can specifically impair processes such as memory consolidation and spatial memory that are mediated by the hippocampus … and tasks involving executive function, attentional focus, and working memory” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 342).
Coping Mechanisms. Deficient coping mechanisms further reduce cognitive resources and working memory capabilities. Specifically, thought suppression processes “aimed at actively regulating negative thoughts and feelings” during times of emotional doubt, anxiety, or potential failure further detract from cognitive resources necessary to perform adequately in evaluative conditions. “If working memory is used to suppress irrelevant information,…the same cognitive process needed for successful performance might be hijacked under stereotype threat for the purpose of regulating one’s emotions” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 345). In fact, research evidenced stereotype threat effects were eliminated when subjects replaced stereotypic irrelevant thoughts with less negative thoughts.
Consequences of Stereotype Threat
Avoidance. One consequence of stereotype threat is that individuals develop behaviors defensively protecting their self-esteem such that they purposely avoid challenging situations and/or problems in favor of assured success. For instance, research indicates that as early as sixth grade, students within identity threatening contexts, purposely select to answer problems below their grade on diagnostic exams, rather than difficult problems reflective of their grade level; however, when the exams are nondiagnostic, the students complete problems at the appropriate grade level (Aronson & McGlone, 2009). This behavior, however, can be counterproductive within achievement realms. Growth is advanced in achievement and intellect through challenging endeavors and working just out of one’s comfort zone. As result, this pattern of behavior may offer short-term self-esteem protection, but has long-term negative consequences in the form of potential missed opportunities.
Disidentification. A second consequence resulting from chronic stereotype threat is disidentification, “which involves detaching self-esteem from outcomes” (Aronson & McGlone, 2009, p. 164). Failure within a domain deemed important to one’s self-concept, such as academics and intelligence, can create extreme psychological discomfort also known as cognitive dissonance. When confronted with an imbalance between behavior and belief, the psyche will strive to restore balance. Within the context of repeated stereotype threat, as would be experienced in evaluative academic situations throughout school, the student may begin to psychologically devalue academics and disidentify with intellectual achievement as part of their identity. As with avoidance, this defense mechanism is counterproductive to the student’s long-term lifelong success because knowledge and/or education are the most critical determinants of future success.
Remediating Stereotype Threat
Clearly, stereotype threat has negative consequences, both immediate and long-term. Therefore, it is beneficial to reduce stereotype threat whenever possible. Reviewing the conditions relative to creating stereotype threat provides potential clues as to reducing its effects. For instance, rather than priming a negative stereotype it is possible to prime a positive stereotype and reap the reward of its effect. For instance, research has found that Asian women primed by gender will perform more poorly on a math exam; however, when primed by race will perform better (Aronson & McGlone, 2009). Another possibility is provision of proactive coping strategies to reduce stress. Clearly, evaluative conditions are stressful for everyone; however, few individuals take advantage of positive coping mechanisms to regulate breathing, clear their mind, and reduce their stress level. Positive coping strategies could conceivably reduce ineffective strategies such as thought suppression in the face of self-doubt. “If emotion regulation does underlie some of the cognitive deficits seen in situations of threat, then manipulations designed to redirect appraisal processes or prevent emotion-focused coping should eliminate stereotype threat performance deficits” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 346).
Due to the importance of remediating stereotype threat, research has sought to determine additional remediation strategies. Positive remediation strategies such as forewarning, reframing, and self-affirmations are discussed hereinafter.
Forewarning. Forewarning consists of explaining to individuals the concept of stereotype threat, as well as how they may experience it in an evaluative setting. Research has demonstrated that when provided information beforehand regarding stereotype threat, subjects either fail to experience stereotype threat and/or its effects are mediated positively such that their performance is not negatively impacted (Aronson & McGlone, 2009). It is suggested forewarning allows reattribution of anxiety (physiological distress) to external causes (stereotype threat), rather than internal causes (intellectual deficiency). “Giving targets an external attribution for heightened arousal is one way to deflect stereotype threat effects on performance” (Schmader et al., 2008, p. 346).
Reframing. Another positive remediation strategy involves reframing of ability such that students are taught that abilities and intellect are “malleable and not fixed” (Aronson & McGlone, 2009, p. 170). Research findings positively demonstrate that when students are encouraged to reframe perspectives of intelligence and temporal deficits in ability through the lens of growth or changing circumstances with an eye towards improvement, students’ not only performed better academically, but expressed more positive attitudes towards academics and achievement (Aronson & McGlone, 2009).
Self-Affirmations. Self-affirmations operate as a type of coping mechanism when facing difficult or challenging situations. Through positive self-affirmations, it is possible to remind oneself of their positive traits, characteristics, abilities, and beliefs. Research has found that by affirming one’s self-concept prior to experiencing a stereotype threat situation, the anxiety typically created can be ameliorated. Accordingly, “in one recent study, the affirmation procedure reduced the achievement gap in grades by 40%” (Aronson & McGlone, 2009, p. 171).
The purpose of this paper was to discuss the concept of stereotype threat with specific regard to conditions in which it occurs, responses to its occurrence, consequences of experiencing it, and potential remediation strategies for ameliorating its negative effects.
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