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stereotype threat consequences vulnerable situations mechanisms reduce criticisms unresolved issues

Group membership

Domain identification

Group identification

Stigma consciousness

Internal locus of control/ Proactive personality

Low coping sense of humor

Low impression management motivation

Low self-monitoring

Low education level

Stereotype knowledge and belief

Status concerns

Since the publication of Steele and Aronson's (1995) study, researchers have identified risk factors that increase one’s vulnerability to stereotype threat—one's “stereotype vulnerability” (Aronson, 2002). Although these factors might be less influential than the situational factors, there are some chronic differences in individuals and groups that might increase susceptibility to stereotype threat.

Group membership

In some respects, everyone is vulnerable to stereotype threat, at least in some circumstances. Everyone belongs to at least one group that is characterized by some sort of stereotype, and any salient social identity can affect performance on a task that offers the possibility that a stereotype might be confirmed. Stereotype threat effects have been shown with diverse groups and stereotypes such as women in math (e.g., Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Walsh, Hickey, & Duffy, 1999), Whites with regard to appearing racist (Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, & Hart, 2004), students from low compared with high socioeconomic backgrounds on intellectual tasks (e.g., Croizet & Claire, 1998; Harrison, Stevens, Monty, & Coakley, 2006), men compared with women on social sensitivity (Koenig & Eagly, 2005), Whites compared with Asian men in mathematics (e.g., Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keogh, Steele, & Brown, 1999), Whites compared with Blacks and Hispanics on tasks assumed to reflect natural sports ability (e.g., Stone, 2002), and young girls whose gender has been highlighted before completing a math task (Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001). High ability does not eliminate the possibility of stereotype threat, and, indeed, high ability individuals can be most susceptible to stereotype threat. For example, women who are at the upper ends of the ability distribution—those who are in the pipeline to science and mathematics professions—can experience underperformance on math tests due to stereotype threat (Good, Aronson, & Harder, 2008).

Stereotype threat can be experienced by anyone in a domain in which one encounters stereotype-based expectations of poor performance. Of course, some groups must confront more stereotypes and more domains in which stereotypes exist than other groups. In addition, individuals who have multiple identities suggesting poor performance might experience stereotype threat in more contexts or to a greater degree than others (e.g., Gonzalez, Blanton, & Williams, 2002). Moreover, when a context highlights one of several stereotype-linked social identities, behavior will tend to confirm the highlighted stereotype (Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999). In sum, these results show that membership in a minority or low-status group is not a prerequisite for experiencing stereotype threat. However, being a member of such a group does expose an individual to stereotype threat more regularly.

Most studies of stereotype threat focus on membership in groups that can be easily detected by others, such as race and ethnicity. However, membership in concealable groups can also produce stereotype threat effects when that membership is revealed to others. Quinn, Kahng, and Crocker (2004) showed that prompting individuals with a history of mental illness to reveal this information harmed performance on a subsequent task. Revealing the group membership to others highlighted stereotypes associated with mental incompetence and harmed performance for a previously "invisible" group.

Even though stereotypes of poor performance have been most closely tied to stereotype threat, stereotypes of superiority can at times undermine performance. Some studies show that stereotype threat can benefit performance of the group not under stereotype-based scrutiny (termed stereotype lift; Walton & Cohen, 2002). However, when attention is explicitly drawn to a social identity associated with positive expectations of performance, the ability to concentrate can be reduced and performance negatively affected (Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000). Only when positive stereotypes are subtly, and not blatantly, highlighted do they appear to produce benefits for stereotype-associated group members (Shih, Ambady, Richeson, Fujita, & Gray, 2002). These data show that group membership can reduce performance even when positive stereotypes are implicated. 

Domain identification

Another factor that increases stereotype vulnerability is "domain identification," the degree to which one personally values achievement in a given domain. The higher the domain identification, the more one is bothered by implications of inferiority in that domain. Therefore, underperformance due to stereotype-related stress is most pronounced for those who value and care about doing well in the stereotyped domain (Aronson et al., 1999; Cadinu, Maass, Frigerio, Impagliazzo, & Latinotti, 2003; Hess, Auman, Colcombe, & Rahhal, 2003; Keller, 2007a; Levy, 1996; Leyens, Desert, Croizet, & Darcis, 2000; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999). Consistent with this notion, there is evidence that racial minority students who most strongly value academics are those who are most likely to withdraw from school (Osborne & Walker, 2006). This is not to suggest, of course, that educators should encourage students to care less about the domain. Rather, this research highlights the need to be mindful of the potential risk of stereotype-based underperformance and disidentification among even the most highly motivated students.

Group identification

Some individuals appear to be more chronically vulnerable to stereotype threat because the identities tied to negative stereotypes are highly salient to them in almost any situation. Some people feel deeply attached to their gender group, for example, and strongly identify themselves with their gender across contexts. Research has found that the more investment in one’s gender identity, the more one will be susceptible to negative stereotypes suggesting limited mathematical ability for women (Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005; Schmader, 2002; but see McFarland, Lev-Arey, & Ziegert, 2003). Group identity strength appears most important when the context brings into question the ability of one's group and not one's individual abilities. When one's own abilities rather than one's group's abilities are brought into question, performance can also be harmed, but group identity strength does not appear to influence susceptibility to this form of stereotype threat (Wout, Danso, Jackson, & Spencer, 2008).

The strength of ethnic and racial identification also has been shown to moderate performance on a broad variety of tasks. Higher ethnic identification predicts greater psychological distress and poorer performance for minority students during their first year in college (Cole, Matheson, & Anisman, 2007), and the degree of racial identification affects whether stereotype threat arises when one is being considered for a job (Ployhart, Ziegert, & McFarland, 2003).

Cultural variables play a role in determining how group identification affects stereotype threat. Deaux et al. (2007), for example, showed that second- but not first-generation West Indian immigrants in the United States showed poorer performance under stereotype threat. In fact, first-generation immigrants showed some evidence of improved performance under threat, or stereotype lift. Stereotype threat effects emerged in the second-generation as their African-American identity was more strongly emphasized and stereotypical expectations of poor performance were more likely applied to the self. Conversely, stereotype threat based on gender differences in math did not emerge in a study conducted in Sweden, a country that strongly emphasizes gender equality (Eriksson & Lindholm, 2007).

Even within a culture, the way that one conceptualizes the self can also determine whether an individual experiences stereotype threat. To the degree that an individual is low in self-complexity (i.e., thinks of himself or herself in terms of a limited number of identities), his or her vulnerability to stereotype threat on any one dimension is increased (Gresky, Ten Eyck, Lord, & McIntrye, 2005). In another line of work, Davis, Aronson, and Salinas (2006) showed that African-Americans who conceptualize their race in terms of Internalization, a status of racial identity that involves racial pride but not denigration of Whites, were more likely to do well under low levels of stereotype threat compared with individuals low in Internalization. These results suggest that the nature of one's group identification might be as important as the degree of group identification in predicting vulnerability to stereotype threat. 

Stigma consciousness and group-based rejection sensitivity

A related vulnerability factor appears to be what Pinel (1999) calls "stigma consciousness," the chronic awareness and expectation of one's stigmatized status. For some individuals, past experience with prejudice can breed a persistent vigilance, a cross-situational tendency to be on the lookout for bias (e.g., Hughes & Chen, 1999). Such individuals are more likely to underperform in stereotype threat situations, when their stigmatized status is activated (see Brown & Lee, 2005; Brown & Pinel, 2003). A related notion is group-based rejection sensitivity (Mendoza-Denton, Purdie, Downey, & Davis, 2002) reflecting differences in the belief that one will be perceived in line with and judged based on stereotypes. Both of these differences, either separately or in conjunction, can intensify the experience of stereotype threat.

Expectations that one will be perceived in line with and influenced by stereotypes can also affect judgments of one's knowledge and abilities. When individuals have inaccurate or unstable judgments of one's abilities, it can lead to poor preparation, setting of inappropriate goals, and embarrassment following failure. Aronson and Inzlicht (2004) showed that Blacks who expected to be stereotyped were less accurate when estimating their abilities and the quality of their performance on intellectual tasks. Such misperceptions can interfere with proper preparation for academic tasks and thereby undermine academic self-confidence and performance. Repeated struggles in a stereotypical domain consequently can make a person particularly susceptible to stereotype threat.

Internal Locus of Control/Proactive Personality

Individuals differ in the degree that they attribute their performance and outcomes to internal versus external causes. Individuals with an Internal Locus of Control tend to attribute their experiences to their own actions, whereas individuals with an External Locus of Control tend to assume that events are caused by external forces. Internal Locus of Control typically produces high motivation and achievement. However, recent work suggests that an Internal Locus of Control can make an individual more susceptible to stereotype threat.  Manipulations designed to increase stereotype threat tended to reduce performance in individuals with an Internal Locus of Control, but these manipulations had no effect on individuals with an External Locus of Control (Cadinu, Maass, Lombardo, & Frigerio, 2006). 

A concept similar to locus of control is proactive personality. Individuals who are proactive are more likely to act, rather than be passive, to change their situations. Perhaps ironically, women who are proactive have been shown to be more sensitive to stereotype threat, indicating less interest in pursuing a career in a field when success supposedly required stereotypical masculine attributes (Gupta & Bhawe, 2007).

Low coping sense of humor

One's sense of humor can also affect how one views and interacts with the world. Humor appears to buffer individuals against the negative effects of stressful events, producing less reported anxiety, physiological arousal, depression, and mood disturbances in response to negative events. Sense of humor appears to buffer negative experiences by creating more positive or benign appraisals in typically stressful situations. Correlational research shows that women exhibit fewer performance deficits on math tests under stereotype threat if they are high in coping sense of humor. Conversely, women low in sense of humor showed higher levels of anxiety and greater decrements in performance under stereotype threat (Ford, Ferguson, Brooks, & Hagadone, 2004).

Low impression management motivation

Humor is just one means by which individuals cope and hopefully avoid stereotype threat. Another series of studies(von Hippel, von Hipple, Conway, Preacher, Schooler, & Radvansky, 2005) shows that individuals high in impression management motivation — those individuals who chronically deny negative, but claim positive, self-attributes in a given context — are better able to cope with stereotype threat through denying stereotype accuracy or self-relevance. Within various groups who faced different stereotype threats, those who were high in impression management consistently denied incompetence in the threatened domain or, if they had to actually perform in that domain, denied its importance. Conversely, individuals low in impression management were less likely to believe that they were incompetent in a threatened domain and to emphasize its importance. This approach tends to make one particularly impacted by poor performance in a domain.    

Low self-monitoring

Individuals also differ in the degree they self-monitor by attending to their environment and regulating their behavior to create a desired impression. Because of their habitual tendency to manage their impressions across social situations, individuals high in self-monitoring might have the ability to respond more effectively in situations that might otherwise produce stereotype threat. Inzlicht, Aronson, Good, and McKay (2006), in fact, showed that high self-monitors do not tend to show performance decrements that typically occur when individuals are in minority-status situations. Although stereotype-related thoughts become more accessible in all individuals, the consequences of those thoughts appear to depend on one's degree of self-monitoring. Increased stereotype accessibility increased performance of high self-monitors, but tended to decrease performance of low self-monitors, in minority status situations. 

Low education level

Andreoletti & Lachman (2004) provided some evidence that more highly educated individuals are less susceptible to stereotype threat effects. Low-educated individuals showed lower memory performance following any mention of age effects on memory (regardless of whether those stereotypes were supported or invalidated). In contrast, more highly educated individuals showed better performance when elderly memory stereotypes were invalidated but no worse performance when they were endorsed, relative to a control condition. The specific reasons why education reversed the effects of stereotype invalidation is not entirely clear, although it is possible that reactance might emerge when highly-educated individuals contest stereotype endorsement (see Kray et al., 2001).

Stereotype knowledge and belief

Threats based on social identity might be experienced more easily and in more contexts if individuals targeted by a stereotype are aware of or ascribe to the stereotype in question. Although adults are usually very aware of broadly held cultural stereotypes, children vary in this knowledge, and their awareness of stereotypes increases with age.  McKown and Weinstein (2003) showed that awareness of cultural stereotypes increases dramatically between the ages of 6 and 11. In addition, they showed that only children who were aware of cultural stereotypes showed performance decrements in conditions that have been shown to produce stereotype threat effects in adults. Similarly,  Muzzatti and Agnoli (2007) showed that girls generally are more likely to agree with gender stereotype regarding math performance as they age. Moreover, decrements in math performance under stereotype threat are also increasingly likely as children age.

Although all adults tend to be aware of cultural stereotypes, they can differ in the degree that they agree with or endorse those beliefs. Schmader, Johns, and Barquissau (2004) showed that women who were more likely to endorse gender stereotypes about women’s math ability tended to perform worse on a stereotype-relevant test under stereotype threat. In addition, these beliefs need not be held consciously to affect performance. Keifer & Sekaqueptewa (2007) showed that women who have stronger implicit or unconscious stereotypes linking men and mathematics also are more likely to perform poorly in math, but this occurs even when they are not in conditions that produce stereotype threat. When stereotype threat was imposed, however, women generally performed more poorly, even those women who have weak implicit gender-math stereotypes. These findings suggest that having strong implicit associations linking one's social identity to poor performance can harm performance even in ambiguous situations where stereotype threat is weak.  

Status concerns

Some have argued that stereotype threat effects occur because of concerns about social status. The specific consequences of those concerns, however, depend on the specific stereotype that is implicated. When stereotypes are negative, individuals most concerned about status are most likely to show performance decrements. When stereotypes allow the possibility of social enhancement, however, status concerns should produce improved performance. Josephs, Newman, Brown, and Beer (2003) provided evidence that individuals high in status- or dominance-concerns (as reflected in high baseline levels of testosterone) are especially susceptible to stereotype threat.

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