Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bridging the Gap: Stereotype Threat

A common disagreement to the cause championed by feminists, and social justice advocates in general, is that the fight is over. The idea being that because the moustached villains in black top hats and capes of days gone by are mostly extinct, no longer able to oppress their victims through overt laws banning them from voting or by relegating them to the "Mad Men"-esque secretaries of the past, then there are no longer any "real" problems that need to be addressed or solved.

Unfortunately, there are still obvious problems of inequality in society; blacks generally performing worse than other races in academic tests, women being paid less than men for doing the same jobs, all types of minorities having difficulties getting hired for various jobs, and so on. Some people argue that these differences are caused by innate or natural differences between these groups, and this is perhaps a possible explanation for some of the differences mentioned, however, it is important to ensure that our conclusions are based on evidence and not just our assumptions about what might be true. In order to figure out what could cause these differences, we must consider all possibilities and some of the best evidence seems to be coming from the research looking at social and cultural influences. What this means is that large-scale emergent differences can arise from very subtle behaviors, beliefs, and norms which are accepted by society. One of these contributing factors is a process known as "stereotype threat".


'Stereotype threat' describes the phenomenon where being aware of negative stereotypes about the stigmatised group you belong to can put you at risk of confirming that stereotype, as defined in the seminal paper by Steele and Aronson1. To put it more simply, it means that if you have a negative thought drilled into you, you will start to believe it and it will affect your performance. For example, the original study by Steele and Aronson looked at the racial gap in academic achievement to see if it could be explained in terms of stereotype threat. To do this, they presented a series of tests with varied instructions; sometimes they were told that the test measures intellectual ability (which should activate the stereotype threat) and sometimes they were told that the test did not measure intellectual ability at all (which should neutralise the stereotype threat). What they found were the results presented in the graph below:

So this study suggested that a key factor in the disparity in academic achievement is how the student perceived their abilities in relation to their race. Steele2 argued that these threats are "in the air" and by clearing the air, these group differences will be diminished.


A popular example of how stereotype threat manifests itself is in how it contributes to the group differences between men and women in measures of mathematical ability. Although there are a number of papers which have demonstrated this effect3, there was an interesting study done by Good, Aronson, and Harder4 that looked specifically at women who were highly proficient and motivated in the fields of mathematics - those taking part in upper level college mathematics courses.

The study had 155 subjects (57 women and 100 men) who were enrolled in a "fast-paced calculus course", and they were randomly placed in either the threat condition or the non-threat condition. Both were given the same tests but each group was given a different accompanying text; the threat condition contained a paragraph known to elicit stereotype threat, and the non-threat condition contained a paragraph that discusses how the test has not been able to demonstrate any gender differences. The results showed that in the threat condition, women performed as equally well as men (3.13 vs 3.08 out of 4), but interestingly they found that in the non-threat condition women actually outperformed men (3.60 to 2.60, respectively).

So what did this study show? It showed that stereotype threat was not just a factor in general tests of mathematical ability and that it can also inhibit the potential of women who are both motivated and proficient in mathematics. The authors argue that the reason why women outperformed the men in the non-threat condition was because the majority of women would drop mathematics and sciences courses as early as possible, leaving only the most motivated and most skilled women to continue with it into college. Conversely, men are often encouraged into these areas regardless of whether they have exceptional abilities or not, and so there will inevitably be a skewed distribution of abilities between men and women in advanced mathematics courses.


The best attempt to explain the processes behind stereotype threat was that put forward by Schmader, Johns, and Forbes in their paper: "An Integrated Process Model of Stereotype Threat Effects on Performance"5 which summarised it as composing of three elements:

  1. stress arousal
  2. performance monitoring, and
  3. suppression of negative thoughts

Stress arousal refers to the physiological factors that often accompany individuals who experience stereotype threat, such as increases in blood pressure and cortisol levels (both of which are indicators of stress). Performance monitoring and suppression of negative thoughts are problematic in that they interfere with working memory because, to put it simply, they divide your available attention give to a task. This is similar to the concept of 'explicit monitoring' where over-attention to well-rehearsed tasks can result in a decrease in performance. This is sometimes used as an explanation for why experts "choke", like a golfer who will perform worse when asked to describe the steps they're taking to hit a ball rather than allowing their autopilot to take over. The suggestion is that all of these factors interfere with an individual's ability to focus on a task, and even learn new information, which means that triggering stereotype threat will significantly affect their performance on a given task.


The concept of stereotype threat is important because it's a simple reminder that issues relating to discrimination and inequality are not limited to cartoon bad guys with over-exaggerated death rays but instead they can be aspects of society that we inadvertently perpetuate simply by interacting with people. They can be beliefs we hold about ourselves ("studying just isn't my thing") and it can be comments that have a greater effect than we may initially realise ("I'm such a typical girl when it comes to maths"). The fact that education of stereotype threat and having visible role models dispelling the stereotype myths that society holds are enough to eliminate the effects of stereotype threat6 should be enough to fund more STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) interventions aimed at enticing greater numbers of women and ensuring that policies like affirmative action are carried out efficiently and effectively across a range of careers.

From a purely academic perspective, these findings also give us reason to be more cautious when interpreting performance disparities in terms of innate differences. There have been arguments that the stereotype threat findings are not as robust as they have been presented, but often these criticisms seem to be predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of stereotype threat - for example, the argument that studies looking at the performance of men and women in tests of mathematical ability are flawed because they lack a control group inducing a stereotype effect in men7. This line of argument appears to assume that stereotype threat is something that can be "implanted" or "induced" like an incantation briefly spoken before giving them the test but this is obviously an inaccurate way of looking at the concept, given that groups of people who have been encouraged and supported in a particular task are unlikely to suffer near-debilitating fear, anxiety and negative thoughts as a result of a 30-second speech given by a stranger.


1. Steele C. M., Aronson J., (1995). "Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69:797–811.

2. Steele C. M., (1997). "A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance". American Psychologist, 52:613–629.

3. Nguyen H. H., Ryan A. M., (2008) "Does stereotype threat affect test performance of minorities and women? A meta-analysis of experimental evidence". Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6):1314–1334.

4. Good, C., Aronson, J., & Harder, J. (2008). "Problems in the pipeline". Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 17–28.

5. Schmader, T., Johns, M.,  Forbes, C., (2008). "An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance". Psychological Review, 115 (2): 336–356.

6. Marx D. M., Roman J. S., (2002) "Female role models: Protecting women's math test performance". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 28:1183–1193.

7. Stoet, G; Geary, D. C., (2012). "Can stereotype threat explain the gender gap in mathematics achievement and performance?". Review of General Psychology, 16: 93–102.

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