Stereotype Threat

The concept of stereotype threat was originally proposed by Claude M. Steele and Joshua A. Aronson in 1995. It is the risk that an individual will confirm a widely known, negative stereotype about his or her group when placed in a situation in which that stereotype is made salient. Concern about making an unfavorable stereotype believable to others outside one’s group or to oneself can cause individuals to exhibit decreased performance in these situations.

Stereotype threat was initially offered as an explanation for the performance gap between African Americans and European Americans on tests of cognitive abilities such as the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), GRE (Graduate Record Examination), and LSAT (Law School Admission Test). The difference in mean score of European Americans on tests of cognitive abilities has been reported to be as much as one standard deviation higher than that of African Americans. The size of this difference varies based on sample type, test type, subtest type, education level, employment status, and the complexity of the job being assessed.

Steele and Aronson reasoned that when an African American enters a standardized testing environment, he or she is faced with the threat that his or her behavior will serve as evidence for the validity of stereotypes concerning the intellectual abilities of African Americans. This fear causes the individual to redirect attentional resources from performing well on the test toward disconfirming negative stereotypes about the mental capabilities of African Americans, thereby lowering his or her score. Understanding this theory is important for individuals in educational and employment settings who administer and interpret tests of cognitive abilities because the significance of the decisions based on these tests is great.

Steele and Aronson established several boundary conditions that must be met in order for a person to experience stereotype threat. First, the task being performed must be one to which a specific negative stereotype is attached (e.g., lower performance on tests of cognitive abilities for African Americans in comparison to European Americans). The individual need not internalize the negative generalization, but he or she must be aware that a stereotype exists about his or her group for that particular situation. The domain being measured also must be important to the self-image of the person being evaluated. Finally, the individual must identify himself or herself as a member of the stigmatized group. According to stereotype threat theory, when these three conditions are satis-fied, the performance of the individual is deflated.

Empirical Evidence

Steele and Aronson’s first study provided preliminary support for the existence of stereotype threat. These researchers examined the performance of high-achieving African American and European American college students on a test comprising difficult items from the verbal portion of the Graduate Record Examination. Two separate conditions were created to manipulate the situational aspects of the test. Participants in the stereotype threat condition were told that the test was intended to diagnose their intellectual ability, thus evoking the racial stereotype of African American intellectual inferiority in the minds of the African American students and generating fear of endorsing the stereotype. The non-stereotype-threat participants were not told that the test was an indicator of verbal ability—instead, they were instructed that they were completing a problem-solving task created by the researcher.

The results showed that African American participants in the diagnostic condition performed significantly worse than the African Americans in the nondiagnostic condition and worse than the European Americans in both conditions. Although the performance of African Americans in the nondiagnostic condition was not equal to that of the European American participants, the performance gap between the two groups was larger in the stereotype threat condition than in this condition. These findings support the notion that the incidence of stereotype threat leads to a performance decrement in the minority group, and reducing the relevance or salience of the stereotype in question will lessen the effects of stereotype threat.

Other studies have shown that any group about which negative stereotypes exist may experience stereotype threat, including women and older Americans.

Stereotype Threat and Employment Settings

Although tests that measure intelligence have been shown to be valid predictors of job performance for most occupations, psychologists are concerned that their use may create adverse impact for protected groups. Stereotype threat has been examined as one method of understanding and alleviating the differences in performance between African Americans and European Americans on personnel selection tests. Several empirical studies have investigated the generalization of stereotype threat to tests administered in the applied setting. Researchers in these studies failed to find the typical stereotype threat effect of lower performance for African Americans in the control condition.

Underlying Mechanisms

Although researchers have provided support for the existence of stereotype threat across a range of groups and settings, we still do not have a clear understanding of how stereotype threat negatively affects performance processes such as anxiety, stereotype endorsement, and self-handicapping. Some of these processes have been tested, but none has been identified as the means by which stereotype threat affects test performance.


  1. Mayer, D. M., & Hanges, P. J. (2003). Understanding the stereotype threat effect with “culture-free” tests: An examination of its mediators and measurement. Human Performance, 16(3), 207-230.
  2. Sackett, P., Henderson, C., & Cullen, M. (2004). On interpreting stereotype threat as accounting for African American-White differences on cognitive tests. American Psychologist, 59(1), 7-13.
  3. Steele, C., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.
  4. Steele, C., & Aronson, J. (2004). Stereotype threat does not live by Steele and Aronson (1995) alone. American Psychologist, 59(1), 47-48.

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