Striving for Social Justice Blog

A Monumental Killer of Dreams: Stereotype Threat

Stereotypes are superficial, but how can they be a threat? How can it kill your dreams?

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

A Monumental Killer of Dreams: Stereotype Threat

Farah rehearsed and has given this speech before and was confident that she could nail this. A colleague waiting alongside, gave her some encouragement.

It's fantastic that everyone is here for you. It must be hard to be a female leader.

Farah then went on stage and gave her speech. Her performance was not as remarkable as she had hoped.

Mike is a caucasian marathon runner and has trained hard for an upcoming international race. Before he got to the starting line, he overheard a comment from a spectator.

It'll be hard to beat the runners from Africa. There are many of them joining this year.

Mike was behind more than half of the runners and could not beat his previous score.

Has this happened to you before? When you knew you were sure to succeed, but something threw you off?

Even if you knew that comments were inaccurate or something reminded of your negative stereotype, still, it somehow affects your performance.

What is so special about these comments? How can words influence us?

We will explore the notion of stereotype threat, what is it, how it came about and what you can do to protect yourself from it.

What Is Stereotype?

Every person is a member of one or a few groups. These groups define their members based on a set of characteristics. These characteristics can be ethnicity, gender, age, religion or even professional affiliation.

But groups do not exist in isolation. Over time people share anecdotes about the other group. Stories help form beliefs, and people make associations about members of other groups. These beliefs and associations are called stereotypes, shaping how people think, communicate, and respond to members of other groups.  Usually, these anecdotes are not supported by evidence.

X people are calculative. Y only care for themselves. Z is not very bright.

Stereotypes are superficial. Its purpose is to pass judgment by placing people in shallow social categories. There is no room for people's personalities, experiences and quirks.

When people become aware of the stereotype against them, they may believe in these stereotypes. The belief in negative stereotypes is called stereotype threat.

What is a Stereotype Threat?

A negative stereotype can become a threat to our sense of self. It makes people doubt their capabilities and questions their worth. If stereotype threat continues, people will start believing, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When members of other groups witness the negative stereotype in action, their beliefs get strengthened, the stereotype continues to be propagated. The vicious cycle goes on and on. Whether you are the target or propagating stereotypes, everyone is impacted by stereotype threat.

There are negative consequences of stereotype threat, such as slowing cognitive functioning and reducing intellectual performance. Stereotype Threat was first researched and defined by social psychologists Steele and Aronson,

being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group (Steele et al., 1995).

In 1995, Steele and Aronson examined the effect on students' academic performance, a 30-minute test based on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). There was a prevailing racial stereotype that white students were more intelligent and capable than black students.

They put forward a hypothesis that if black students were primed with the racial stereotype, they would perform worse than their white peers. To test this, they created two groups consisting of black and white students. One group of students was given a test with "Diagnostic of Intellectual Ability", while the other group was assigned the label "Non-Diagnostic". The label "Diagnostic" will have triggered the negative stereotype of black students because of the comparative nature of tests.

Results showed that black students underperformed white students when the test was labelled as "Diagnostic of Intellectual Ability", while both black and white students did equally well when the test was labelled as "Non-Diagnostic".

A simple label can have such a massive impact on performance. Steele and Aronson's groundbreaking work has encouraged many other psychologists to replicate and discover various occurrences of stereotype threat in other areas.

How else can stereotype threat be harmful?

Are Women Weak In Math?

In 1999, Steele, Spencer and Quinn sought to test women's negative stereotypes and supposedly weaker math abilities. In one study, the researchers provided a not-too-easy math test to two student groups of mixed genders. The math test was adopted from the advanced GRE in mathematics.

In the study, one group was told that the math test results " showed gender differences in the past". To make a comparison, the other group was told that the math test results "NEVER shown gender differences in the past".

When instructed that gender differences influence math results, women performed much worse, even though they are as equally qualified as their male peers.

The good news is that when instructed that there are no gender differences in math ability, both women and men achieved equally impressive results. Just explicitly stating that negative stereotypes do not apply in a particular situation can help mitigate the effects of stereotype threat.

Do Older Adults Have Poor Memory?

Have you ever heard your parents complaining about losing their keys frequently? Or find yourself forgetting where you parked your car as you age?

Memory becomes poorer with age is a common negative stereotype. In 2005, Chasteen and their team set out to understand this stereotype and whether it threatens older adults' memory performance. Both young and older adults were given impression formation tasks and memory tests. In the impression formation tasks, participants were asked to form an overall impression of a person based on a description of their behaviours. In the memory tasks, participants were asked to memorise the exact wording of each description.

To activate negative stereotypes, the researchers used a lexical decision task. The task involves participants deciding whether the combination of letters make a word. The list of words included neutral words, stereotypic words and non-words. To compare, participants in one study took the lexical decision task, while the other group did not.

Researchers found that stereotype threat did lower memory performance in older adults. Surprisingly, even when researchers attempted to reduce stereotype threat by reframing the task instructions, older adults' memory performance remains impacted.

This is worrying; when people believe in their negative stereotype, it is hard to un-believe it.

Are Children Immune To Stereotype Threat?

So far, we've looked at adults. Surely, children would not be affected? What do they know of stereotypes?

In 2009, Desért and the team wanted to find out if children could be victims of stereotype threat. The prevailing stereotype was that children from high socio-economic status (SES) perform better than children from low SES. To test this, children from ages 6 to 9 years old took an intellectual ability test called Raven's Progressive Matrices, commonly used among psychologists.

The Raven's Progressive Matrices consists of design problems, where each problem presents a series of pictures in a logical sequence, where the last image is missing. Participants were presented with eight design choices to fill the missing picture of the problem. As children progress in the test, the problem becomes increasingly challenging.

As with the previous study, one group of children's stereotype threat will be activated, but the other group will not. The stereotype threat is activated based on the instruction; one group was explicitly told their intelligence would be evaluated. The other group was told that the matrices were a new game, and researchers needed their help to test if the game was suitable for their age.

Dishearteningly, stereotype threat does not spare young children. Children from low SES performed worse than children from high SES when they were told their intelligence would be tested.

How To Reduce Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threat is not deterministic nor absolute. There are ways to reduce or counter stereotype threats.

Recognise Stereotype Threat Within

Firstly, you need to be aware of stereotype and the threat it poses to yourself and others. Reading this article or other articles like this is a significant step in understanding stereotype threat. When you understand and become aware, you spot instances where stereotype threats occur.

If you recognise the negative stereotype other people have against you, knowing about the stereotype threat is enough to reduce its negative impact on your performance.

However, if you notice that you hold the negative stereotype of others, you need to question it. Stereotypes shape your speech and actions. Whether consciously or not, it can have a devastating impact on others. Here are some questions to start with.

  • Is the stereotype true? Where is the evidence?
  • What made me assume that?
  • What have I not considered?

Inform Others About Stereotype Threat

Sometimes, you might find yourself observing stereotypes in others. People don't always hold stereotypes out of spite. As you recall, stereotypes come from shared anecdotes. Where there is a lack of experience, the mind fills in the gap with anecdotes heard from others or, worse, imagined fears.

Hence, this is an opportunity to fill the gap with science-based information about stereotypes and their threat. Sharing about stereotype threat and how it works can help guide people towards more inclusive and compassionate thinking.

But first, you need to raise awareness that a speech or behaviour might be based on stereotypes. One way to address it is to ask

What makes you assume that?

When a suitable opportunity arises, and there is openness to learn, take the time to discuss and share about stereotype threats.

Affirm Positive Characteristics

Another way to reduce stereotype threat is to affirm positive characteristics.

Pointing out the good characteristics in others can help to silence the voice of self-doubt and provide the motivation needed. Reminding others of their good qualities can help boost their self-esteem and confidence, relieving the burdens of negative stereotypes that prevent them from performing their very best.

It doesn't take much to point out what you appreciate and value in another person. Compliments don't cost a penny, yet the rewards are worthwhile.

We can all do our part to be educated, inform others and reduce stereotypes.

We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those that we have of ourselves. Shirley Chisholm

Key Points

Some key points were covered in this article.

  • Stereotypes are beliefs and associations other people make about members of other groups.
  • Stereotype Threat is when a negative stereotype harms individual performance.
  • When black students were primed about their negative stereotype on academic performance, they performed worse than their white peers.
  • When women's stereotype of poor math abilities were activated, they performed worse than their equally qualified male peers in the GRE math test.
  • When older adults were reminded of the negative stereotype of their poor memory, they did poorer on a memorisation task than their younger peers.
  • When low SES children were "tested" for their intelligence, they did worse in the Raven's Progressive Matrices than their high SES friends.
  • Stereotype threat can be reduced through awareness, understanding and recognition.
  • Talking about stereotype threat can help to reduce stereotype threat.
  • Emphasis positive characteristics to buffer against the impact of stereotype threat.

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