Stereotype Threat

"Stereotype threat", as defined by psychologist Claude Steele, is the mental drain from being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. In less dense language this means that people get mentally depleted when they're trying to avoid playing into negative expectations – and this impedes successful completion of a given task. [Wikipedia] For example: "I am a woman in a room full of men. I am taking a math test. There are stereotypes that women are not good at math." [University of Arizona]

This is related to the psychological phenomenon of "priming" in which an initial experience primes someone's brain in such a way that their later behavior is affected. For example, the word "Nurse" is recognized more quickly following the word "Doctor" than following the word "Bread". [Wikipedia]

There are main contributors to stereotype threat. These include situations when (1) stereotypes about one's identity feel relevant to the task at hand; (2) someone is solo in a small number of underrepresented people in a given context; and (3) someone faces evaluative scrutiny [University of Arizona]

XKCD comic titled "How It Works" [XKCD]


Facts and data

  • There are many major consequences to stereotype threat. Here are five of many: (1) Anxiety and dejection; (2) Heightened self-consciousness of stereotypes; (3) Lowered performance expectations and subsequent practicing time; (4) Reduced creativity and speed; and (5) Altered professional identities and aspirations [University of Arizona]
  • The mere presence of other people can evoke stereotype threat.Researchers found that women who took a math exam along with two other women got 70% of the answers right, whereas women who took the same exam with two men got an average of 55%. This same score decline didn't occur with verbals test, only on math tests. There weren't significant differences in performance for men. Lastly, women’s lower performance in math was proportional to the relative number of men in a group: in same-sex groups, women got 70%; in a mixed-majority (two women, one man), women got 64%; and in a minority-group (one woman, two men), women got 58% [Harvard Kennedy School]
  • Stereotype threat can affect everyone, including overrepresented groups. Any social identity can affect performance on a task that offers the possibility that a stereotype might be confirmed, even overrepresented groups. This includes  men with tasks of social sensitivity; white people compared on tasks assumed to reflect natural sports ability; and white men facing supposed Asian superiority in math [University of Arizona]
  • Stereotype threat can hurt or harm depending on framing. Researchers found that the framing of an athletic task significantly affected how Black and white athletes performed. They found that Black participants performed significantly worse than did control participants when performance on a golf task was framed as diagnostic of "sports intelligence." In comparison, white participants performed worse than did control participants when the golf task was framed as diagnostic of "natural athletic ability" [American Psychological Association]
  • Stereotype threat with gender and negotiations. One study had female-male pairs do a negotiation exercise together and found that when the pair was told good negotiators had traits commonly thought to be female (e.g. emotional, good listeners, expressive) the women performed substantially better than the men. When the the pair was given a gender neutral description of good negotiators, they found that men did substantially better [Northwestern Kellogg]
  • Asian women did better and worse on a math test depending on whether their race or gender was primed. Asian American women performed better on a math test when their Asian identity was primed compared to a control condition with no priming (conforming to the "Asians are good at math" stereotype). Conversely, participants did worse on the math test when instead their gender identity was highlighted (conforming to the "Women are bad at math" stereotype) [Harvard Kennedy School]

Claude Steele found that Black students facing stereotype threat did much worse on a GRE-like aptitude test compared to their previous SAT scores than did Black students who did not face stereotype threat. White students' scores were not significantly affected [Wikipedia]


Take Action

Trying not to think about stereotype threat doesn't help. Stereotype threat reduces available "working memory"  which is one of the strongest predictors of ability. It is self-defeating to seek to avoid the effects of stereotype threat by trying not to be anxious, not to have feelings of self-doubt, and not to pay attention to negative stereotypes. Such efforts further deplete the cognitive resources available to them for successfully performing workplace tasks. Read on for better solutions [HBR]

  • Affirm counter-stereotypical strengths. Women, for example can think of themselves as tough, risk-taking, and competitive for a few minutes before engaging in a task with potential stereotype threat [HBR] [University of Arizona]
  • Encourage a growth mindset. Emphasizing the importance of effort and motivation in performance while deemphasizing inherent talent or genius reduces stereotype threat. Black students who were encouraged to view intelligence as malleable were more likely to indicate greater enjoyment and valuing of education, and they also received higher grades that semester [University of Arizona]
  • Encourage self affirmation. When people affirm their self worth they protect themselves from perceived threats and consequences of failure. This can be done by encouraging people to think about characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important. White people who affirmed their commitment to being non-racist were less likely to respond in a stereotypic fashion to an implicit measure of racial associations linked to racial bias. African American students who self-affirmed themselves for 15 minutes performed better during the semester than those who did not. The effects arise because the affirmation alleviates the fear of confirming to negative stereotypes [University of Arizona]
  • When giving feedback, emphasize high standards with assurances about someone's capability to meet them. Constructive feedback is most effective when it communicates high standards for performance, while also providing assurances that their abilities and “belonging” are assumed rather than questioned [University of Arizona]
  • Remind others that stereotype threat is real but stereotypes are not. Remind someone that the anxiety they may experience when performing a task with a negative stereotype has nothing to do with their actual ability and everything to do with stereotype threat [HBR]
  • Help others avoid viewing themselves through an identity lens. Instead of “I am the only black woman in this meeting”, focusing on achievements and abilities (“I am the only person in this meeting with an MBA”) [HBR]
  • Exposure to positive role models improves performance. Providing even a single role model that challenges stereotypic assumptions can eliminate performance decrements under stereotype threat. Evidence indicates that even reading essays about successful women can alleviate performance deficits under stereotype threat [University of Arizona]. Google noticed that only 1 of 15 conferences rooms on a certain part of their campus were named after women and so began naming more after women [The Atlantic]
  • Move demographic inquiries (i.e. race/ethnicity, gender, etc) to the end of performance evaluations. Multiple sets of researchers found that moving demographic questions to the end of the AP Calculus test resulted in significantly higher performance amongst women on the test. By instituting this procedural change, it is estimated that an additional 4700 female students would receive AP Calculus credit annually [University of Arizona]

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