Stereotype threat occurs when members of a group fear their behaviors may contribute to a negative stereotype about their social group.
Stereotype threat leads to feelings of anxiety, self-consciousness, and decreased confidence. Studies (Pennington et al., 2016; Schmader, Johns & Forbes, 2008) reveal that self-consciousness about adhering to a stereotype can tangibly decrease performance in both academic and workplace situational contexts. It is believed that the increased cognitive load of worrying about the stereotype threat decrease performance.
It can therefore lead to disparities in success and achievement between different racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural groups, thereby exacerbating social inequality.
Stereotype Threat Effects
Stereotype threat can have a wide-ranging effect, not just on an individual, but on society as a whole.
Examples of effects include:
|Stress||Stereotype threat can increase a person’s level of stress, causing them to go through unnecessary steps in their daily life to try and disprove pre-existing stereotypes about their group (Schmader, Johns & Forbes, 2008).|
|Abandoning interests and passions||It can also lead to an individual abandoning certain subjects they may be interested in or future job choices because of perceived discrimination (Casad & Bryant, 2016).|
|Cognitive overload||People conscious that they may be confirming a negative stereotype tend to focus on this worry. This, in turn, leads to excessive performance monitoring, which can cause cognitive overload and prevent people from entering a flow state (Schmader, Johns & Forbes, 2008).|
|Self-fulfilling prophecy||In some cases, an unfavorable stereotype could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy situation, where a person may feel pressured to adhere to the negative stereotype, or even glorify it, which in turn sustains society’s stereotype perseverance.|
Stereotype Threat Examples
The following are examples of situations where stereotype threat may arise:
- Women in STEM: Women in some fields of science feel judged and may be stereotyped as not having the same technical abilities as their male counterparts.
- Women in leadership: Women in positions of leadership often have their behavior highly monitored and judged and have a sense that they are representing their gender. As a result, they may fear that coming across as bossy or even failing may help to confirm other people’s negative gender biases (Hoyt & Murphy, 2016)
- Gay Men: Gay men may be highly conscious that people distrust them around their children. For example, gay teachers may be conscious of parents’ distrust which may implicitly affect their student-teacher interactions (Bosson, Haymovitz & Pinel, 2004).
- Male teachers: To a lesser extent, male teachers are conscious of stereotypes around predatory behaviors, making them conscious of ensuring distance between themselves and their students. For example, they may be less likely to accept a hug from a student than female teachers (Kalokerinos et al., 2017).
- Consciousness of bias in the workplace: Employees faced with stereotype threat often find it easy to assume that their coworkers or superiors are biased against them due to their group membership.
- Working-class students at university: Students from lower socioeconomic classes being deemed less capable of succeeding in an academic setting due to their financial situation.
- People with disabilities: People with disabilities or developmental challenges stereotyped as not having the same capacity to achieve a task as someone without the same challenges.
- Religious groups: Muslims being stereotyped or associated with terrorism or extremism
- Asians in math: Asian people have a stigma of being superior at mathematics and science and they often feel as if people are expecting them to fit into this model minority stereotype.
- Mental health: People with a mental illness are stereotyped as dangerous or unstable
- Stereotypes about African Americans: African Americans being falsely associated with deviance and aware that people may implicitly distrust them.
- Anti-Semitism: A Jewish person being self-conscious of long-standing negative stereotypes (e.g., greed and thriftiness).
- Immigrant consciousness: Negative stereotypes pertaining to immigrant groups that may cause anxiety or stress (e.g., being aware that people might consider you to be an unlawful immigrant).
- When traveling: Travellers may be highly conscious that people are judging them as representative of their nationality. Your accent stands-out in a foreign country, so if you do something embarrassing, it may help confirm people’s negative biases about your nationality.
- Parenting: Parents may worry that their parenting styles are highly monitored. For example, parents from minority groups (gay parents, parents who are people of color) may feel as if their misbehaving child may contribute to negative stereotypes from people around them about their class or race.
Case Study 1: Muslims being stereotyped or associated with extremism.
For many Muslims, stereotype threat manifests itself in the form of microaggressions, biases, and baseless judgements from surrounding non-Muslim groups.
Stereotypes that Muslims are in some way suspicious, dangerous, or untrustworthy, have made it more challenging for some Muslims to lead a successful life in society.
This was particularly evident in the early 2000’s. Overwhelming Islamophobia, and stereotyping towards Muslim communities after the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks in NYC, was rampant in the United States.
In recent years, efforts have been made to ease stereotyping, and prejudiced treatment of Muslims in society. However, Hakim et al. (2020) state that:
“Tolerant discourse in the United States has responded to heightened stereotyping of Muslims as violent by countering that “not all Muslims are terrorists.” This subtyping of Muslims—as some radical terrorists among mostly peaceful “moderates”—is meant to protect a positive image of the group but leaves the original negative stereotype unchanged. We predicted that such discourse may paradoxically increase people’s support of anti-Muslim policies because the subtyping and its associated negative stereotypes justify hostile actions toward Muslims” (para 1).
They explain that is a common intercultural stereotype to classify Muslims as either radical or moderate (breaking Muslims into two categories “good or bad”).
This stereotype is still frequently used as a way to gain public approval for aggressive political actions, because it comes with a veil of being anti-prejudiced.
They continue that this “novel form of stereotyping against Muslims is related to geopolitical attitudes, given the emergence of this subtyping within the context of the U.S.-led “War on Terror”(para 14).
This can be damaging for Muslim communities, as it perpetuates a negative stereotype based in duality (goodness and badness) applied to an entire religion; this often leads to immigration issues from certain regions, surveillance of daily activities, and other prejudice.
2. Social Class
Case Study 2: Students from lower socioeconomic classes may be deemed less capable of succeeding in an academic setting due to their financial situation.
Social class-based stereotypes can contribute to inequality in a variety of ways. Not only do they form in children’s minds from an early age, and they can affect academic achievement in a variety of educational settings.
Although wealth-based stereotypes tend to be more common in societies with greater disparities in wealth, they often portray people with lower social status (less wealth) as being less capable, and therefore less likely to succeed.
In many schools, social class stereotypes generally benefit those of a higher social class, and this can be reinforced by the educational system.
The situation grows progressively worse when race overlaps economic class stereotyping. This can create negative or false perceptions (e.g., both White and Black individuals tend to assume that Black people are employed in low-income occupations, and White people are employed in higher-income ones) (Durante & Fiske, 2017, para 2-9).
Durante & Fiske (2017) add:
“Rich people are stereotyped as intelligent and, psychometrically speaking, wealthier people do tend to have higher IQ and SAT scores compared to low-income people. Despite various explanations for such a class gap in testing, scholars have only just started to investigate this phenomenon within the stereotype-threat framework (albeit even so, rarely): namely, a situational predicament affects intellectual performances of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups in the intellectual domain; their performance potentially reflects on their SC group as well as themselves” (para 11).
3. Immigrant Groups
Case Study 3: Negative stereotypes pertaining to immigrant groups that may cause anxiety or stress (e.g., non-citizenship).
Immigrant populations often confront generalizations about their achievement potential and cognitive performance in the countries where they live.
Based on stereotype and social identity threat theory and research, negative stereotypes can impair the performance of members of a group due to additional pressures to succeed.
Latin American migrants in both the US and Spain, as well as immigrants from Turkey, the Maghreb region, and the Balkans in Northern and Western Europe, have been observed to demonstrate low academic performance in school.
Utilizing social-psychological tactics, and examination of data, Appel et al. (2015) hope to promote equality in education school systems, and positively enhance experiences for immigrants who are impacted.
Their investigation efforts on stereotype threat imply that of proactive and preemptive measures are employed with at risk immigrant groups, it can reduce the hazardous effects of stereotype threat.
They are actively containing to search for proof that of these strategies for the benefit of immigrant students.
Appel et al. (2015) conclude:
“Stereotype threat theory posits that negative stereotypes about one’s group can elicit an extra pressure not to fail which leads to cognitive underperformance. Thus, stereotype threat could explain a substantial part of the immigrant achievement gap, one of the arguably most pressing problems for educational research and practice.”
Stereotype Threat Theory Criticisms
|1. It is not a reliable predictor of outcomes or behaviors||Stereotype threat has been criticized for its lack of predictive ability in certain circumstances, and that the effects of stereotype threat are often not seen in real-world situations. Instead, empirical findings tend to be limited to experiments conducted in laboratory settings.|
|2. Studies on stereotype threat rely on subjective self-reporting research||In describing the limitations of stereotype threat research, Pennington et al. (2016) explain that scientists have largely relied on self-reporting techniques to identify stereotype threat. However, people’s self-reports are inherently subjective, especially those related to assessment of their own behavior. Therefore, people exposed to stereotype threat may not be reliable sources for explaining the causes of their poor outcomes (para 53).|
Stereotype threat occurs when people are conscious of confirming negative biases about their social group, leading to self-monitoring, anxiety, and stress. It has been found to directly lead to poor outcomes in both academic and workplace contexts and therefore may exacerbate social inequalities for marginalized and oppressed groups.
For more on how people develop stereotypes (including the two signals people use to judge a person or group, consult our article on the stereotype content model here.
Appel, M., Weber, S., & Kronberger, N. (2015). The influence of stereotype threat on immigrants: review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00900
Bosson, J. K., Haymovitz, E. L., & Pinel, E. C. (2004). When saying and doing diverge: The effects of stereotype threat on self-reported versus non-verbal anxiety. Journal of experimental social psychology, 40(2), 247-255.
Casad, B. J., & Bryant, W. R. (2016). Addressing Stereotype Threat is Critical to Diversity and Inclusion in Organizational Psychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00008
Durante, F., & Fiske, S. T. (2017). How social-class stereotypes maintain inequality. Current Opinion in Psychology, 18, 43–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.07.033
Hakim, N. H., Zhao, X., & Bharj, N. (2020). The Paradox of the Moderate Muslim Discourse: Subtyping Promotes Support for Anti-muslim Policies. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.612780
Hoyt, C. L., & Murphy, S. E. (2016). Managing to clear the air: Stereotype threat, women, and leadership. The leadership quarterly, 27(3), 387-399.
Kalokerinos, E. K., Kjelsaas, K., Bennetts, S., & von Hippel, C. (2017). Men in pink collars: Stereotype threat and disengagement among male teachers and child protection workers. European Journal of Social Psychology, 47(5), 553-565.
Pennington, C. R., Heim, D., Levy, A. P., and Larkin, D. (2016). Twenty Years of Stereotype Threat Research: A Review of Psychological Mediators. Plos One, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146487
Schmader, T., Johns, M., and Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review. 115 (2): 336–356. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0033-295X.115.2.336
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.