The Stereotype Threat

Steven Volk, February 29, 2016

I was recently reading a blog post by Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher. She wrote about a trip she took in the 1980s down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe on route to a teaching post. The environs were beautiful and she asked the tour guide if they could stop and walk along the shore. No way, he replied. The banks of the river had been strewn with landmines from the civil war and they still remained. The likelihood was that she would be blown up. Nor was Zimbabwe the only place in the world where talks in the countryside can carry fatal consequences. There are an estimated 110 million landmines in place around the world, and many, if not most, will remain long after hostilities have ceased since it is much more expensive to remove a landmine than to put one in.

The experience led Salzberg to think about her own emotional landmines and the ways that we often think of ourselves as inadequate. And it led me to think about the hidden “landmines” that we, and the larger society, have placed in the path of many of our students. What I want to address here are those specific “landmines” which have been studied as under the concept of “stereotype threats.”


Maya, a first-year student, has enrolled in a calculus course, the first of her college career. She studied hard for the mid-term exam but, reasonably, still feels nervous about how she’ll do on it. As she turns over the exam booklet, she is asked to fill in her name, class year, major (if any), and gender. She takes the exam. What the research shows is that she will do more poorly on the exam than would have been the case if the professor hadn’t asked her to fill in her gender.

What is impacting Maya’s exam performance has been called the “stereotype threat.” The term was coined by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in a 1995 article in the journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In it, the authors argued that when a person’s identity has a negative stereotype attached to it and he or she engages in activity relevant to that stereotype, there is a likelihood of a negative impact. To clarify further: the stereotype must be salient to the person in question, and the domain or activity that person is engaging in must be important to them for the threat to have a (negative) consequence. In the case of “Maya,” girls and women are presumed to be worse at math than boys and men in western cultures. That’s the stereotype. In this case the student in question is taking an exam which is quite important to her. That’s the relevant activity. To the extent that Maya’s gender is brought in, the research has found that she will not do as well on the exam as she could have were her gender to have been omitted from the exam paper.

Whisteling-VivaldiMuch of the information for this article comes from Steele and Aronson’s work, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Norton, 2011), a recent “Teaching in Higher Ed” podcast on “The Potential Impact of Stereotype Threat,” which featured an interview with Robin Paige, a sociologist at Rice University who is  Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the website, run by Catherine Good and Steven Stroessner, two social psychologists (at Baruch and Barnard, respectively). The website, in particular, offers superb resources for faculty, providing succinct summaries of research on stereotype threat, raising unresolved issues and controversies in the research literature, and offering research-based suggestions for reducing the negative consequences of stereotyping, particularly in academic settings.


Steele and Aronson ran a number of experiments in the 1990s which found that Black first-years and sophomores would perform more poorly than White students on standardized tests when their race was emphasized as part of the test. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better, and on a par, with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. Since that time, over 300 experiments on stereotype threat have been published in peer-reviewed journals (see Nguyen & Ryan 2008 and Walton & Cohen, 2003 for meta-analyses).

Researchers have found that stereotype threats can have a negative impact not only on activities involving assessments of learning (exams, papers, presentations), but they can also impact learning itself. And, to the extent that learning and assessment often merge, there is an obvious double vulnerability.

Beside Steele and Aronson’s original research findings, the website reports on five new directions that research on the stereotype threat have taken. I’ll summarize them briefly here:

  • Research has shown that the consequences of stereotype threat can also lead to “self-handicapping strategies” (for example, students will spend less practice time on a task) or a reduced sense of belonging to the stereotyped domain. To the degree that individuals value the domain in question, stereotype threats can lead students to choose not to pursue a relevant activity (math, science, etc.). Such choices can obviously limit the range of professions such students can hope to follow. In this context, we can see how some  long-term effects of stereotype threat can contribute to greater educational and social inequality. Furthermore, stereotype threat has been shown to affect stereotyped individuals’ performance in a number of domains beyond academics, such as women in negotiations or gay men in providing childcare.
  • We now have a better understanding of who can be vulnerable to stereotype threat: basically anyone. Stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance (e.g. ethnic groups, low-income or first generation students, females in math, etc.).  At the same time, research also demonstrates that within a stereotyped group, some members may be more vulnerable to its negative consequences than others, depending on the strength of one’s group identification or domain identification.
  • We know more about the situations that are most likely to lead to stereotype threat. In general, the conditions that produce stereotype threat are ones in which a highlighted stereotype implicates the self though association with a relevant social category. This is the case in the first example I used, women and math: performance can be undermined because of concerns about the possibility of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group. Thus, situations that increase the salience of the stereotyped group identity can increase vulnerability to stereotype threat.
  • Although the research is not entirely clear on the mechanisms by which negative stereotypes lead to demonstrated outcomes, we are beginning to better understand some factors involved. Recent research has shown that stereotype threat can reduce working memory resources, ultimately undermining one’s ability to successfully complete complex intellectual tasks.
  • Finally, researchers have begun to examine methods of reducing the negative effects of stereotype threats. Methods range from in-depth interventions to teach students about the malleable nature of intelligence to simple changes in classroom practices that can be easily implemented by the instructor, such as ensuring gender-fair testing. Much of this work coincides with the “mindset” research of Carol Dweck discussed here previously. I’ll present more of these recommendations at the end of the article.


Group Identities

Stereotype threats are most likely to impact group identities. Where one’s stereotyped group status is made relevant or conspicuous by situational features, threat and performance inhibitors are more likely (e.g. Blacks or Hispanics in sciences, women in math, men compared with women on social sensitivity, whites compared with Asian men in mathematics, etc.). Teachers may inadvertently highlight social identities in a variety of ways: asking for gender on a math test or, as Steele and Aronson suggested in their initial research, asking students to identify their ethnicity on test booklets. While it is unlikely that students would be asked to identify their race or ethnicity on regular class exams, most high-stakes testing situations – SATs or GREs, for example – do ask for this information. And, of course, faculty know their students so, unless they have a “blind” system of grading, these factors can always come in.

Marx and Goff (2005) asked Black and White undergraduates to complete a difficult verbal test administered by a Black or White examiner. Black students performed as well as White students when the test administrator was Black but more poorly when he/she was White. There was no difference in the results for White students.

New research has also suggested that stereotypes are quite contextual and contingent: in some areas of Asia, girls are “expected” to do better at math than boys, thus exams which stress gender in those settings can produce a stereotype “boost” for girls. Young Asian-American women taking a math assessment will often do better when primed for race and ethnicity, and worse when primed for gender. Of course, all of this is much more complicated as other stereotypes (such as the “model minority stereotype”) become involved. Research has found that faculty are less likely to give Asian American students help in class, i.e. to approach them to see if they have questions.

Other research has shown that minority status can also add to a worse performance in conditions that already produce a stereotype threat. Negative results have been demonstrated where one individual is (or even expects to be) the single representative of a stereotyped group. Thus, research has found that women’s performance on math exams declined as the number of men in the room taking the test increased.


As with any developing body of research, various issues remain unresolved and criticisms have emerged.

Some critics have challenged the research design and methodology of Steele and Aronson. Most of the early studies were conducted exclusively with college students and researchers charged that this was too narrow a base on which to put forward a broad hypothesis about human behavior. (This critique has been answered by a large number of studies using populations from young children to adults in workplace settings. The research on stereotype threat has proven to be highly consistent across populations and contexts.)

Stereotype threat research has been criticized for it inability to fully account for performance differences. In a 2004 paper, Steele and Aronson acknowledge that persistent racial differences in standardized testing have multiple causes and that stereotype threat is not a “silver-bullet cure for the race gap.” Certainly the issue of pre-existing differences in test scores is an issue to consider, and current research suggests that stereotype threat may be one of many factors that contribute to performance differences on standardized tests.

Some researchers question whether stereotype threat effects occur in “real-world” settings. In other words, are stereotype threat effects more likely to occur in “laboratory” settings than they would in the non-academic world?

Child.Jade_.braindrainOne of the most significant critiques (which was addressed by Steele in Whistling Vivaldi) is the notion that negative stereotype impacts can be easily corrected because “it’s all in your head” and we can remove stereotype threat by remove specific domain indicators (gender designation on math tests, for example). Not only does this put the onus of responsibility for discrimination back on to the individual student as opposed to the larger context (higher education and a society that fosters inequality), but it somehow suggests that racism or sexism or class bias aren’t based on material and historical practices. If people move away from a young Black man who walks down a street late at night, if police arrest a Black woman for not signaling a lane change, that indicates the real and pervasive impact of racism which will not be removed by changing how tests are administered; it is a reality that is impervious to any level of success which Blacks have been able to achieve.


Nonetheless, broad research indicates that stereotype threat is real and has a concrete impact on the ability of our students to learn. So it is important that we consider evidence-based recommendations to improve our pedagogical practices in this area. What follows are some recommendations culled from the “reducing stereotype” website, the podcast, and other sources:

  • Reframe the task: use different language to describe the task or test being used. Modifying task descriptions so that such stereotypes are not invoked or are disarmed can begin to eliminate stereotype threat.
  • Move from “proving” to “improving”: use more low-stakes testing that puts an emphasis on improving learning rather than on diagnostic tests that set out to “prove” a student’s “intelligence”.
  • Address test fairness: where one can’t remove the diagnostic (“proving”) nature of a test (e.g. in regular course examinations) or in standardized testing situations, stereotype threats can be reduced by directly addressing the specter of gender-based performance differences within the context of explicitly diagnostic examinations (Good, Aronson & Harder, 2008). Simply addressing the fairness of the test while retaining its diagnostic nature can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation. Concretely, testing procedures should include a brief statement that the test, although diagnostic of underlying mathematics ability, is gender-fair (or race-fair).
  • De-emphasize threatened social identities: modify procedures that heighten the salience of stereotyped group memberships. One study (Stricker and Ward (2004) has found that moving standard demographic inquiries about ethnicity and gender to the end of the test resulted in significantly higher performance for women taking the AP calculus test.
  • Encourage individuals to think of themselves in ways that reduce the salience of a threatened identity: women who were encouraged to think of themselves in terms of their valued and unique characteristics were less likely to experience stereotype threat in mathematics. Encouraging individuals to think of characteristics that are shared by in-group and out-group members, particularly characteristics in the threatened domain, appears to preclude the development of stereotype threat in conditions that normally produce it.
  • Encourage self-affirmation: Help students to think about their characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important (Schimel, Arndt, Banko, & Cook, 2004). A study led by Oberlin’s Cindy Frantz (Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, and Hart, 2004) showed that Whites who were given the opportunity to affirm their commitment to being nonracist were less likely to respond in a stereotypic fashion to an implicit measure of racial associations that had been described as indicative of racial bias. Another study (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master, 2006) described two field studies in which seventh grade students at racially-diverse schools were randomly assigned to self-affirm (indicating values that were important to them and then writing a brief essay indicating why those values were important) or not to self-affirm (indicating their least important values and writing an essay on why those values might be important to others) as a part of a regular classroom exercise. Although the intervention took only 15 minutes, the effects on academic performance during the semester were dramatic. African American students who had been led to self-affirm performed .3 grade points better during the semester than those who had not.
  • Emphasize high standards with assurances about capability for meeting them: The nature of the feedback provided regarding performance has been shown to affect perceived bias, student motivation, and domain identification. Constructive feedback appears most effective when it communicates high standards for performance but also assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards.
  • Provide role models: Role models who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific domain can reduce or even eliminate stereotype threat effects. Some research has found that even reading about successful role models can alleviate performance deficits under stereotype threat.
  • Providing external attributions for difficulty: One reason that stereotype threat harms performance is because anxiety and associated thoughts distract threatened individuals from focusing on the task at hand. Several studies have shown that providing individuals with effective strategies for regulating anxiety can disarm stereotype threat.
  • Emphasize an incremental (“growth”) view of intelligence. Carol Dweck’s research has suggested that students who think of intelligence as a quality that can be developed and that changes across contexts or over time (an “incremental theory”), will be better able to overcome obstacles than students with a “fixed” idea of intelligence. African American students who were encouraged to view intelligence as malleable, “like a muscle” that can grow with work and effort, were more likely to indicate greater enjoyment and valuing of education and did better in school. (The opposite is also true: attributing gender differences in mathematics to genetics reduced performance of women on a math test compared with conditions in which differences were explained in terms of experience.) In short, emphasize the importance of effort and motivation in performance and de-emphasize inherent “talent” or “genius.”
  • Finally, the nature of the campus environment and culture can also impact the ability of students to overcome racial stereotype threats. A campus that is afraid to bring up issues of race and racism and which fosters the idea that the campus is a “color-blind” environment can be quite damaging for students of color on campus.  If we don’t find a way to talk about these issues, we are not helping all of our students learn. We have to think about this in our classes: What are our interactions with students like? Who is being represented in our classes and who is left out? Are we making our classes as inclusive as possible? Students of color are often left being the ones talking about these issues whereas race is something that defines us all – being White is also a racial construction. We all have to see ourselves as part of that ongoing conversation. As we know, this is not easy. As Robin Paige asked: How do we create a space of accountability without saying “you’re a bad person for saying that” and I won’t deal with you? How do we create a space for learning that understands both that we have to be accountable for our ideas, and that we (and our ideas) can change, that college is, above all, a place for re-thinking and re-examination. Ultimately, talking about inequality can be “priming” for students, encouraging them to overcome obstacles to their education as they prepare for themselves for a life after college.

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