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Stereotype threat is the fear that one's behavior will confirm an existing stereotype of a group with which one identifies. This fear may lead to an impairment of performance.

For example, Diane Halpern in her book Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, argued that gender differences in cognitive abilities can be caused by a "stereotype threat", defined as "the fear of conforming to a negative stereotype associated with one’s group membership, which paradoxically results in the individual behaving in line with the stereotype".[1] If an individual is made aware of a stereotype then “the activation of stereotypes might explain why the magnitude of sex differences in sex-sensitive cognitive task varies across studies, depending on whether participants gender-stereotypes are activated or not”.[2]


An experiment on college students in 1995 showed the impact of stereotype threat by asking students to fill out a form before taking the test indicating their race. The scores in this graph have been adjusted by SAT.[3]

File:Stereotype threat gender.jpg

The effect of Stereotype Threat (ST) on math test scores for girls and boys. Data from Linking Stereotype Threat and Anxiety[4]

During the 1960’s psychologist Irwin Katz suggested that stereotypes could influence performance on IQ tests. Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ subtest if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks.[5] Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores.[6]

The phenomenon was later examined by the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who articulated the mechanism of "stereotype threat" that contributes to test performance of minority groups. In one such study, Steele and Aronson (1995) administered the Graduate Record Examination to white and African American students. Half of each group was told that their intelligence was being measured, while the other half thought the test was not measuring their intelligence. The white students performed almost equally in the two conditions of the experiment. African Americans, in contrast, performed far worse than they otherwise would have when they were told their intelligence was being measured. The researchers concluded this was because stereotype threat made the students anxious about confirming the stereotype regarding African American IQ. The researchers found that the difference was even more noticeable when race was emphasized.

"When capable black college students fail to perform as well as their white counterparts, the explanation often has less to do with preparation or ability than with the threat of stereotypes about their capacity to succeed."

- Claude M. Steele, The Atlantic Monthly, August 1999 Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students

Stereotype threat has also been found to apply to sex differences in mathematical achievement. A common stereotype is that men have stronger abilities in mathematics than women. When women believed sex differences could be revealed by a mathematics test, the men performed better. If the test was presented as gender fair, the sexes performed equally well (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). This can even happen to white males when they feel inferior to another group. In a different experiment, Joshua Aronson and his colleagues (1999) tested the mathematical ability of white males who were highly proficient at mathematics. These males performed far worse when told prior to the exam that Asians typically outperformed whites on that test.

Steele and Aronson write that making race salient when taking a test of cognitive ability negatively affected high-ability African American students.[7] Steele writes that the stigma of being African American is still relevant, as it has an effect on the educational outcomes of African Americans. Stereotypes such as: Asian Americans excelling in mathematics or African Americans always testing poorly can be extremely harmful. Stereotype threats can seriously alter academic achievement and motivation.[8]

In a paper prepared for APA convention, Steele writes: "Thus the predicament of 'stereotype vulnerability': The group members then know that anything about them or anything they do that fits the stereotype can be taken as confirming it as self-characteristic, in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in their own eyes. This vulnerability amounts to a jeopardy of double devaluation: once for whatever bad thing the stereotype-fitting behavior or feature would say about anyone, and again for its confirmation of the bad things alleged in the stereotype."

Physiological responses

Stereotype threat can result in physiological responses since the pressure and fear caused by negative stereotypes is so great. For example, a study by Blascovich J, Spencer SJ, Quinn D and Steele C. found that African Americans under stereotype threat exhibited larger increases in arterial blood pressure during an academic test, and performed more poorly on difficult test items. Some researchers feel this may explain the higher death rates from hypertension related disorders among African Americans.[9] A study by Toni Schmader and Michael Johns found that stereotype threat can effectively reduce working memory capacity, another factor in poor test performance.[10] Stereotype threat may undermine intellectual performance by triggering a disruptive mental load. Studies have found increased heart rates for test subject operating under stereotype threat.[11]

Interpreting stereotype threat

The stereotype threat phenomenon has been confirmed in over one hundred scientific journal articles (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002; see While the findings show that stereotypes may play a role in test score achievement gaps, they do not necessarily show that stereotypes are the entire source of the gaps. Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J. Cullen write that some of the time stereotype threat research has been misinterpreted in media as showing that eliminating stereotype threat completely eliminates the difference in test performance between White and African American individuals.[12] They worry that this misinterpretation will shift the focus in public policy on closing the gap away from deeper systemic issues of racism, sexism and inequality. In their own words:

Our concern about the misinterpretation that removing threat from a testing setting eliminates African American– White differences is that such misinterpretation has the potential to wrongly lead to the belief that there is less need for research and intervention aimed at a broad range of potential contributing factors, such as differences in educational and economic opportunities of African American and White youth. If group differences in scores on the SAT and other tests were largely explainable by the mind-set with which examinees approach the testing situation, it would then follow that differences in factors such as quality of instruction or per-pupil educational expenditure do not matter much in terms of achievement in the domains measured by high-stakes tests. Hence, caution in interpretation of threat research is warranted.

Furthermore, while Sackett et al. do not dispute the fact that stereotype threat has a real, measurable effect on test scores, they posit that in the part of the experiment where Steele and Aronson removed the stereotype threat, the achievement gap which did remain correlated closely with the existing African American - White achievement gap on large-scale standardized testing such as the SAT. In their own words:

Thus, rather than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the large score gap on standardized tests, the research actually shows something very different. Specifically, absent stereotype threat, the African American-White difference is just what one would expect based on the African American-White difference in SAT scores, whereas in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is larger than would be expected based on the difference in SAT scores.

In subsequent correspondence between Sackett et al. and Steele and Aronson, Sackett et al. wrote that "They [Steele and Aronson] agree that it is a misinterpretation of the Steele and Aronson (1995) results to conclude that eliminating stereotype threat eliminates the African American-White test-score gap."[13]

In an editorial article entitled "The Threat in the Air", which was published on April 18, 2004 in the Wall Street Journal, professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School was highly critical of what she sees as Steele and Aronson's presentation of their research. She was also skeptical of what she sees as claims about the real-world effect of stereotype threat on the black-white achievement gap.

Practical applications

The theory has generated a good deal of intervention work, some of which has boosted the achievement and test scores of low performing minority students.[14][15] Since stereotype threat appears to be one key contributing factors to the gaps in test scores, researchers Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, and Allison Master proposed intervention methods to address the problem in 2006. The intervention, a brief in-class writing assignment, significantly improved the grades of African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40%. These results suggest that the racial achievement gap, a major social concern in the United States, could be ameliorated by the use of timely and targeted social-psychological interventions.[16]

See also


  1. Marcus Hausmann, Daniela Schoofs, Harriet E.S. Rosenthal, Kristen Jordan, (2009) "Psychoneuroendocrinology",
  2. Marcus Hausmann, Daniela Schoofs, Harriet E.S. Rosenthal, Kristen Jordan, "Psychoneuroendocrinology", 2009
  3. The Effects of Stereotype Threat on the Standardized Test Performance of College Students J Aronson, CM Steele, MF Salinas, MJ Lustina - Readings About the Social Animal, 8th edition, E. Aronson
  4. Linking Stereotype Threat and Anxiety Jason W. Osborne. North Carolina State University, Educational Psychology Vol. 27. Page. 135-154. Feb 2007
  5. Review of Evidence Relating to Effects of Desegregation on the Intellectual Performance of Negroes I Katz - American Psychologist, 1964
  6. Race and IQ TIME. Monday, Sep. 07, 1970
  7. Steele, C. M. and Aronson, J. (Nov 1995). "Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797-811.
  8. Racial Identity and Academic Achievement
  9. African Americans and high blood pressure: the role of stereotype threat. Blascovich J, Spencer SJ, Quinn D and Steele C. Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara 93106, USA.
  10. Converging Evidence That Stereotype Threat Reduces Working Memory Capacity Toni Schmader and Michael Johns 2003
  11. Stereotype Threat Undermines Intellectual Performance by Triggering a Disruptive Mental Load 2004 Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.
  12. On Interpreting Stereotype Threat as Accounting for African American–White Differences on Cognitive Tests
  13. On the Value of Correcting Mischaracterizations of Stereotype Threat Research
  14. Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Aronson, J, Fried, C and Good, C. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38.2 (March 2002): p113(13).
  15. Knowing Is Half the Battle: Teaching Stereotype Threat as a Means of Improving Women's Math Performance. Johns, M, Schmader, T and Martens, A. Psychological Science 16.3 (March 2005): p175-179.
  16. Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention Science 1 September 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5791, pp. 1307 - 1310
  • Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2005). Social Psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29-46.
  • Sackett, P. R.; Hardison, C. M.; & Cullen, M. J. (Jan., 2004). On Interpreting Stereotype Threat as Accounting for African American–White Differences on Cognitive Tests. American Psychologist, 59(1), 7–13.
  • Steele, C. M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69(5), 797-811.
  • Steele, C. M., Spencer, S., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Vol. 37. Academic Press.
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