Stereotype Threat Definition
Stereotype threat arises from the recognition that one could be judged or treated in terms of a negative stereotype about one’s group. This sense of threat usually happens when one is doing something to which such a stereotype applies. Then one knows that one is subject to be judged or treated in terms of that stereotypes—as when, for example, an older person is trying to remember where he or she placed the house keys. The negative stereotype alleging poorer memory among older people applies. As the person searches, he or she is aware of confirming this stereotype or being seen as confirming it. If the person is invested in having a good memory, the prospect of being judged or treated this way could be upsetting, distracting. It could even have the ironic effect of interfering with the person’s ability to find the lost keys. Most research on stereotype threat has examined how this threat affects the intellectual performance of groups whose intellectual abilities are negatively stereotyped in the larger society—for example, women performing advanced math, as well as minority groups performing difficult cognitive tasks in general.
Most often stereotypes are seen to affect their targets through the discriminatory behavior and judgment of people who hold the stereotype. An implication of stereotype threat, however, is that stereotypes can affect their targets even before they are translated into behavior or judgments. The mere threat of such judgment and treatment—like the threat of a snake loose in the house—can have effects of its own.
Stereotype threat has several features and parameters.
General Features of a Stereotype Threat
Stereotype threat is situational in nature. It arises from situational cues signaling the relevance of a stereotype to one’s behavior. Experiencing it doesn’t depend on a particular state or trait of the target such as believing in the stereotype, or holding low expectations that might result from chronic exposure to the stereotype. Such internal states or traits are neither necessary nor sufficient to the experience of stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat is a general threat that is experienced in some setting or another by virtually everyone. All people have some social identity for which negative stereotypes exist—the elderly, the young, Methodists, Blacks, Whites, athletes, artists, and so forth. And when they are doing things for which those stereotypes apply, they can experience this threat.
The nature of the threat depends on the content of the negative stereotype. The specific meaning of the stereotype determines the situations, the people, and the activities to which it applies, and thus becomes capable of causing a sense of stereotype threat. For example, the type of stereotype threat experienced by men, women, and teenagers would vary considerably, focusing on sensitivity in the first group, math skills in the second, and maturity and self-control in the third. And for each group, the threat would be felt in situations to which their group stereotype applies, but not in other situations. For example, a woman could feel stereotype threat in a math class where a negative group stereotype applies but not in an English class where it doesn’t apply.
The Strength of a Stereotype Threat
The strength of a stereotype threat also depends, in part, on the meaning of the stereotype involved. Some stereotypes have more negative meaning than others do. A stereotype that demeans a group’s integrity should pose a stronger threat than a stereotype that demeans a group’s sense of humor, for example.
How much a person identifies with the domain of activity to which a stereotype applies should also affect the strength of the stereotype threat he or she experiences. The more one cares about a domain, the more upset one is likely to be over the prospect of being stereotyped in it.
The more one cares about the group identity that is being stereotyped, the more upset one should be by the prospect of being group stereotyped
Generally, the more capable one feels about coping with the threat, the less intense the experience of stereotype threat should be.
- Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.
- Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.