Stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group.[1][2] Stereotype threat is purportedly a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. It may occur whenever an individual's performance might confirm a negative stereotype because stereotype threat is thought to arise from a particular situation, rather than from an individual's personality traits or characteristics. Since most people have at least one social identity which is negatively stereotyped, most people are vulnerable to stereotype threat if they encounter a situation in which the stereotype is relevant. Situational factors that increase stereotype threat can include the difficulty of the task, the belief that the task measures their abilities, and the relevance of the stereotype to the task. Individuals show higher degrees of stereotype threat on tasks they wish to perform well on and when they identify strongly with the stereotyped group. These effects are also increased when they expect discrimination due to their identification with a negatively stereotyped group.[3] Repeated experiences of stereotype threat can lead to a vicious circle of diminished confidence, poor performance, and loss of interest in the relevant area of achievement.[4]

Since its introduction into the academic literature, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology.[5]Stereotype threat has been argued to show a reduction in the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups.[6][7] Its role in affecting public health disparities has also been suggested.[8]

According to the theory, if negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, group members are likely to become anxious about their performance, which may hinder their ability to perform to their full potential. Importantly, the individual does not need to subscribe to the stereotype for it to be activated. It is hypothesized that the mechanism through which anxiety (induced by the activation of the stereotype) decreases performance is by depleting working memory (especially the phonological aspects of the working memory system).[9]

Some researchers have suggested that stereotype threat should not be interpreted as a factor in real-life performance gaps, and have raised the possibility of publication bias.[10][11][12] Other critics have focused on correcting what they claim are misconceptions of early studies showing a large effect.[13] However, meta-analyses and systematic reviews have shown significant evidence for the effects of stereotype threat, though the phenomenon defies over-simplistic characterization.[14][15][16][17][18]

The opposite of stereotype threat is stereotype boost, which is when people perform better than they otherwise would have, because of exposure to positive stereotypes about their social group.[19] A variant of stereotype boost is stereotype lift, which is people achieving better performance because of exposure to negative stereotypes about other social groups.[19]

Empirical studies

As of 2011, more than 300 published papers show the effects of stereotype threat on performance in a variety of domains.[20] The strength of the stereotype threat that occurs depends on how the task is framed. If a task is framed to be neutral, stereotype threat is not likely to occur; however, if tasks are framed in terms of active stereotypes, participants are likely to perform worse on the task. For example, a study on chess players revealed that female players performed more poorly than expected when they were told they would be playing against a male opponent. In contrast, women who were told that their opponent was female performed as would be predicted by past ratings of performance.[21] Female participants who were made aware of the stereotype of females performing worse at chess than males performed worse in their chess games.

Researchers Vishal Gupta, Daniel Turban, and Nachiket Bhawe extended stereotype threat research to entrepreneurship, a traditionally male-stereotyped profession. Their study revealed that stereotype threat can depress women's entrepreneurial intentions while boosting men's intentions. However, when entrepreneurship is presented as a gender-neutral profession, men and women express a similar level of interest in becoming entrepreneurs.[22] Another experiment involved a golf game which was described as a test of "natural athletic ability" or of "sports intelligence". When it was described as a test of athletic ability, European-American students performed worse, but when the description mentioned intelligence, African-American students performed worse.[23]

The effect of stereotype threat (ST) on math test scores for girls and boys. Data from Osborne (2007).[24]

Other studies have demonstrated how stereotype threat can negatively affect the performance of European Americans in athletic situations[25] as well as the performance of men who are being tested on their social sensitivity.[26] Although the framing of a task can produce stereotype threat in most individuals, certain individuals appear to be more likely to experience stereotype threat than others. Individuals who highly identify with a particular group appear to be more vulnerable to experiencing stereotype threat than individuals who do not identify strongly with the stereotyped group.

The mere presence of other people can evoke stereotype threat. In one experiment, women who took a mathematics exam along with two other women got 70% of the answers right, whereas women who took the same exam in the presence of two men got an average score of 55%.[27]

The goal of a study conducted by Desert, Preaux, and Jund in 2009 was to see if children from lower socioeconomic groups are affected by stereotype threat. The study compared children that were 6–7 years old with children that were 8–9 years old from multiple elementary schools. These children were presented with the Raven's Matrices test, which is an intellectual ability test. Separate groups of children were given directions in an evaluative way and other groups were given directions in a non-evaluative way. The "evaluative" group received instructions that are usually given with the Raven Matrices test, while the "non-evaluative" group was given directions which made it seem as if the children were simply playing a game. The results showed that third graders performed better on the test than the first graders did, which was expected. However, the lower socioeconomic status children did worse on the test when they received directions in an evaluative way than the higher socioeconomic status children did when they received directions in an evaluative way. These results suggested that the framing of the directions given to the children may have a greater effect on performance than socioeconomic status. This was shown by the differences in performance based on which type of instructions they received. This information can be useful in classroom settings to help improve the performance of students of lower socioeconomic status.[28]

There have been studies on the effects of stereotype threat based on age. A study was done on 99 senior citizens ranging in age from 60–75 years. These seniors were given multiple tests on certain factors and categories such as memory and physical abilities, and were also asked to evaluate how physically fit they believe themselves to be. Additionally, they were asked to read articles that contained both positive and negative outlooks about seniors, and they watched someone reading the same articles. The goal of this study was to see if priming the participants before the tests would affect performance. The results showed that the control group performed better than those that were primed with either negative or positive words prior to the tests. The control group seemed to feel more confident in their abilities than the other two groups.[29]

Many psychological experiments carried out on Stereotype Threat focus on the physiological effects of negative stereotype threat on performance, looking at both high and low status groups. Scheepers and Ellemers tested the following hypothesis: when assessing a performance situation on the basis of current beliefs the low status group members would show a physiological threat response, and high-status members would also show a physiological threat response when examining a possible alteration of the status quo(Scheepers & Ellemers, 2005).[30] The results of this experiment were in line with expectations. As predicted, participants in the low status condition showed higher blood pressure immediately after the status feedback, while participants in the high-status condition showed a spike in blood pressure while anticipating the second round of the task.

In 2012, Scheepers et al. hypothesized that when high social power is stimulated 'an efficient cardiovascular pattern (challenge)' is produced, whereas, 'an inefficient cardiovascular pattern' or threat is caused by the activation of low social power (Scheepers, de Wit, Ellemers & Sassenberg, 2012). Two experiments were carried out in order to test this hypothesis. The first experiment looked at power priming and the second experiment related to role play. Both results from these two experiments provided evidence in support for the hypothesis.[31]

Cleopatra Abdou and Adam Fingerhut were the first to develop experimental methods to study stereotype threat in a health care context,[32] including the first study indicating that health care stereotype threat is linked with adverse health outcomes and disparities.[33][34]

Several meta-analyses and systematic reviews have shown significant evidence for the effects of stereotype threat.[14][15][16][17][18] However they also point to ways in which the phenomenon defies over-simplistic characterization. For instance, one meta-analysis found that with female subjects "subtle threat-activating cues produced the largest effect, followed by blatant and moderately explicit cues" while with minorities "moderately explicit stereotype threat-activating cues produced the largest effect, followed by blatant and subtle cues".[15]