Bibliography latest addition About Us Contact Us
stereotype threat consequences vulnerable situations mechanisms reduce criticisms unresolved issues

Group identity salience

Minority status

 

Stereotype salience

Evaluative scrutiny

Although some individuals are more susceptible to stereotype threat than others, stereotype threat is also more common in some situations than others.  Research suggests that stereotype threat is more likely to occur in the following contexts.

Group identity salience

When one’s stereotyped group status is made relevant or conspicuous by situational features, stereotype threat and performance decrements are more likely. Because stereotype threat arises from negative performance expectations in a specific domain, any group can show evidence of underperformance if the situation brings attention to the threatened identity. In other words, although stereotype threat tends to be experienced by members of some groups more than others, it would be inappropriate to conclude that it is only experienced by members of traditionally stigmatized or stereotyped groups. Stereotype threat effects have been shown by women in math (e.g., Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Steele, Reisz, Williams, & Kawakami, 2007; Walsh, Hickey, & Duffy, 1999), Whites when they fear appearing racist (Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, & Hart, 2004), men compared with women on social sensitivity (Koenig & Eagly, 2005; Marx & Stapel, 2006b), Whites compared with Asian men in mathematics (e.g., Aronson et al. 1999), and Whites compared with Blacks and Hispanics on tasks assumed to reflect natural sports ability (e.g., Stone, 2002).

A stereotyped social identity can be highlighted in several ways in social situations. Steele and Aronson (1995) simply had African-American college students indicate their race on a test-booklet prior to taking a test. They found that merely asking participants to indicate their race caused Black students’ anxiety to increase and their test scores to drop, even though the test had been described as non-diagnostic of ability. Highlighting stereotyped social identities by soliciting identity-relevant information before test taking has been used in several studies (Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001; McGlone & Aronson, 2006; Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999; Shih, Pittinsky, & Trahan, 2006; Yopyk & Prentice, 2005) and the results consistently show performance decrements for the stereotyped group when identity information is gathered before rather than after test completion. These effects are particularly worrisome since it is standard practice to ask questions about test-takers' group memberships including gender and race before students complete high-stakes exams such as the SAT and GRE. Data provided by Stricker and Ward (2004; see Danaher & Crandall, 2008) suggest that merely moving the standard demographic inquiry from the beginning to the end of the test would improve performance of women on the AP Calculus Test. By instituting this procedural change, it is estimated that an additional 4700 female students would receive AP Calculus credit annually.

A more subtle form of group identity salience occurs when an individual interacts with an outgroup member. Marx and Goff (2005) had Black and White undergraduates complete a challenging verbal test in the presence of a Black or White test administrator. Blacks reported feeling more threat and performed worse when the test administrator was White rather than Black. When the experimenter was Black, Black students performed as well as White students, and White students were unaffected by the administrator's race. Stone and McWhinnie (2008) used a similar manipulation by having females perform a golf task in the presence of a male or female experimenter. When the experimenter was male, women tended to make more errors indicating poor focus and concentration. Both studies suggest that group identity tends to be more salient when an individual interacts with an outgroup member, and in such situations the performance of group members associated with a negative stereotype tends to be harmed.

Minority status

Situations where one is (Sekaquaptewa, Waldman, & Thompson, 2007) or even just expects to be (Murphy, Steele, & Gross, 2007) the single representative of a stereotyped group (i.e., solo status) or a numerical minority can create heightened group identity and stereotype threat. Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev (2000) describe studies in which individuals performed tests in groups where the gender composition was varied. Women showed performance decrements on math tests (where there exists a stereotype of female inferiority) but only when they took the test in the presence of other men, and performance decreased in proportion to the number of fellow male test-takers. Beaton, Tougas, Rinfret, Huard, and Delisle (2007) also provided some evidence of lowered math performance in conditions involving solo status, and also showed that these decrements are likely caused by the increased feelings of performance anxiety that arise under solo status. Solo status does not affect intellectual performance generally, however, and women's performance on verbal tests (where there are no strong gender stereotypes) tends not to be affected by the gender composition of the group (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000). Although these data suggest that stereotype threat arises from minority status, Sekaquaptewa and Thompson (2003) showed that minority status can also add to performance decrements in conditions that already produce stereotype threat. Women's performance was poorest when stereotype threat had been instantiated through a manipulation and when women had numerical minority status. The results of Huguet and Régner (2007) indicate that minority status also can interact with task description. Elementary school girls in mixed-sex groups performed worse than boys in  when a task was described as reflecting geometry rather than drawing ability. Varying the task description produced no performance differences when the girls were in single-sex groups. These laboratory demonstrations also extend to real world environments involving adults. Roberson, Deitch, Brief, and Block (2003) showed that individuals who were the sole minority in their workplace department experienced a greater degree of stereotype threat, affecting how workers interpreted feedback from colleagues and supervisors.

Stereotype Salience

Identities can become threatened when stereotypes are invoked, either blatantly or subtly, in the performance environment. In many studies, individuals have been told explicitly that performance differences exist between members of different social groups (e.g., Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele, & Brown, 1999; Smith & White, 2002; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Yeung & von Hippel, 2008), and other studies endorse stereotypes more subtly by suggesting that the study is focused on examining the reasons for differential performance between groups (e.g., Beilock, Rydell, & McConnell, 2007; Brown & Pinel, 2003). Task performance also has been shown to be harmed when women must complete a task in the presence of an instructor who supposedly has sexist attitudes (Adams, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, & Steele, 2006). These various means for endorsing stereotypes consistently reduce the quality of performance in individuals who are members of the supposedly lower-performing group. Stereotype endorsement is not necessary to produce stereotype threat effects. Studies that have simply exposed individuals to group stereotypes without endorsing them (Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, & Mitchell, 2004; Bergeron, Block, & Echtenkamp, 2006; Levy, 1996) or have directed individuals to think about the ways they are affected by stereotypes of their group (Josephs, Newman, Brown, & Beer, 2003) have also produced performance decrements.

The way a task is described can also affect which stereotypes are highlighted in a given situation (e.g., Brown & Day, 2006; Huguet & Régner, 2007). Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley (1999) showed this quite dramatically by varying the description of a task involving golf putting that was to be performed by Black and White individuals. When the researchers suggested that task performance relied on natural sports ability (invoking the stereotypical superiority of Blacks), Whites performed significantly worse than Blacks on the task. When researchers described the task as reflecting athletic intelligence (invoking the stereotypical superiority of Whites), Whites performed better than Blacks. Similarly, Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, and Hart (2004) suggested to White individuals either that performance on a computer-administered test reflected "racial bias" (highlighting the stereotype that Whites are racist) or "knowledge of [but not belief in] cultural stereotypes." Performance was worse in the former condition, ironically producing scores on the test consistent with White racial bias. Finally, Yopyk and Prentice (2005) showed that asking student-athletes to complete either a measure of academic self-regard or a difficult math test tended to highlight one of the two identities. Individuals who were prompted to think about their academic confidence and success produced evidence that their identities as athletes had been highlighted, but individuals who faced a math test showed seemed to think of themselves as students. These studies show that the description of the task itself can alter the stereotypes that are invoked in a situation, with activation of threatening stereotypes harming performance. 

Evaluative scrutiny

Situations in which an individual believes that his or her ability in a stereotypic domain will be evaluated can create a strong sense of group identity and stereotype threat. When a test is described as being able to provide reliable and valid information about one's ability in a stereotyped domain, feelings of anxiety and intrusive thoughts of failure can arise, harming performance (e.g., Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, & Hart, 2004; Kray, Thompson, & Galinsky, 2001; Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005). Steele and Aronson (1995) showed that varying the presumed diagnosticity of a test in a threatened domain can affect the quality of performance. African American and White college students took a difficult verbal test resembling the GRE after being told either that the test measured their intellectual abilities, or alternatively, that the test measured psychological processes involved in problem solving. When the tests were supposedly diagnostic of intelligence, White students outscored Black students. However, in the condition in which the test was described as diagnostic of problem solving (for which there exists little or no racial stereotype), the racial gap in performance was eliminated. Although most people strive to do well on a diagnostic test, stereotyped individuals may become hyper-motivated to perform well in order to disprove the stereotype. This highly motivated state can create an added level of stress, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts that undermine the relaxed concentration that is optimal for performance on complex cognitive tasks (see Beilock, Rydell, & McConnell, 2007; Osborne, 2007; Schmader & Johns, 2003). Tests that are supposedly diagnostic of intelligence are particularly a source of concern, since poor performance can imply limited ability and can affect life aspirations and goals.

Evaluative scrutiny is also increased when a situation tests the limits of one's abilities. When confronting a frustratingly hard test, for example, an individual may grow increasingly concerned about the implications of possible failure for interpretations of their own or their group's abilities, again increasing anxiety or intrusive thoughts. Several studies have shown that stereotype threat effects are more likely on difficult tests and difficult items, particularly for people who are highly-identified with a domain (but see Stricker & Bejar, 2004). Spencer, Steele, & Quinn (1999, Experiment 1), for example, gave an easy or difficult math test to women and men had a history of successful performance and who valued performance in math. Performance was equivalent when the test was relatively easy, but men outperformed women when the test was difficult. O'Brien and Crandall (2003; see also Wicherts, Dolan, & Hessen, 2005) asked men and women to complete an easy or difficult math test under stereotype threat or standard (no stereotype threat) conditions. Stereotype threat improved performance of women on the easy set of problems but harmed performance on the difficult problem set, but men were unaffected by the stereotype threat manipulation. Similar effects have been shown in children.  Third-grade girls performed more poorly on difficult items after their gender had been highlighted, but their performance on easy items was equivalent across conditions (Neuville & Croizet, 2007). These results suggest that stereotype threat will more likely arise when individuals confront difficult tasks involving the stereotype and, once it arises, will more likely harm performance on difficult compared with simple tasks. 

Back to top