Stereotype Threat

Travis DixonSocial and Cultural Psychology

Stereotype threat is when someone feels anxious about reinforcing a negative stereotype. It turns out that positive stereotypes can actually also have positive effects.

One way that stereotypes can have an effect on behaviour is by something called “stereotype threat.” This is defined as “being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). In other words, you feel that you might behave in a way that confirms a stereotype about a group that you belong to.

In IB Psychology you need to be able to explain the formation of stereotypes, as well as how they may affect behaviour. The stereotype threat is one way to answer this question.

For example, there’s a stereotype that old people are bad drivers. An example of stereotype threat could be before taking a driving test to renew a driver’s license, and old person might feel that they’ll drive badly and this will confirm the stereotype of old people as being bad drivers. The effect of stereotype threat on behaviour is called the “stereotype threat effect. ”

Social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Anderson are pioneers in the study of stereotype threat effect. They have conducted many studies that show how stereotype threat can have a negative effect on behaviour. For example, they conducted an experiment on white and black students in the US. The results showed that simply being asked to indicate their race on the test had a negative effect on black students, which they argue is due to the anxiety of confirming the stereotype “that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites.” (Read more here.)

This has implications for how standardized tests (e.g. the SAT) are run, because it could be a disadvantage to black students if they have to indicate their race and potentially cause stereotype threat.

I teach in Japan and every time we discuss this in class, many of my students want to know if the opposite effect can happen. That is to say, can there be a positive effect? Most of my of my students are Japanese or from another Asian country and so they want to know if the positive stereotype of Asians being good at math can be a benefit to them when they take their SATs. The study below investigated this idea.

Key Study: Stereotypes and Behaviour: Maths and Asian-American Females (Shih et al., 1999)

Aim: To investigate the possibility of stereotypes having potential positive and negative effects on behaviour.
Participants: 46 Asian-American undergraduate students.
Place: Harvard University, USA

  • Participants randomly allocated into one of three conditions (Asian-identity condition, gender-identity condition and control)
  • They were given a math test with 12 questions.
  • Before taking the test they were asked a range of questions that differed in each condition.
  • In Asian-identity condition, they were asked questions related to their heritage (e.g. how many generations of their family had lived in America).
  • Whereas for the gender identity condition they were asked questions related to gender (e.g, did they prefer co-ed or single sex dorms).
  • In the control condition the questions were meaningless questions about television or phone services.
  • They had 20 minutes to take the test and the researchers scored the results for accuracy.

There was a significant difference in the % of correct answers in each condition:

  • Asian-identity: 54%
  • Control: 49%
  • Gender-identity: 43%

What we can see from the above study is that it turns out that positive stereotypes can have a positive effect on performance. In this case, having one’s sense of Asian identity activated can improve performance on a Math test. Similarly, because there’s a stereotype that females are worse at Maths than males,  the poor performance in the gender-identity condition also demonstrates the stereotype threat effect.

Here we have a really interesting example of how stereotypes can affect behaviour. Another effect is looking at how stereotypes can affect our judgment of others due to confirmation bias – this is the example covered in our textbook and I’ll post about this later.