Stereotype Threat

In 1995, Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson coined the term stereotype threat. The cornerstone of the phenomenon of stereotype threat is the pressure to not conform to a given expectation of poor performance. This results in an activation of negative and internalized stereotypes. In other words, the pressure to not conform to a known negative stereotype about the group with which one identifies can result in compromised performance on a said task.

Steele and Aronson first examined stereotype threat among African Americans. One negative stereotype toward African Americans is low intelligence; when intelligence is defined as fixed, it creates a belief that innate or biological limitations may be to blame for poor performance. Unfortunately, these stereotypes have been applied wrongly to explain the achievement gap between African Americans and Caucasians on standardized test scores. Steele and Aronson’s 1995 study created a scenario characterized by stereotype threat, where this stereotype was made salient by telling the treatment group that the test they were taking measured intelligence. The control group was told that the test was a measure to study problem solving. When stereotype threat was absent, the scores of the African American students only differed to the degree that would be expected on the basis of their prior Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. When stereotype threat was present, the African American students performed worse than the Caucasian students. The difference was beyond what prior SAT scores would predict for individual differences in skill level. Stereotype threat was shown to be a condition where negative stereotypes about a group identity are evoked and individuals are in a situation where they could conform to that stereotype. In the previous example, the suggestion that the test was a measure of intelligence invoked the stereotype that African Americans have lower intelligence for the African American students and under the pressure of the possibility of confirming this stereotype, they actually performed worse than would have been expected. The stereotyped group does not have to believe the stereotype for this effect to materialize.

Stereotype Threat Generality

Stereotype threat can be generalized to populations where stereotypes are present. Numerous studies have confirmed the presence of stereotype threat among diverse racial groups, ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and age groups. In an article published in 1999, Aronson, Michael Lustina, Catherine Good, and Kelli Keough demonstrated that stereotype threat can be present in groups that do not have a history of stigmatization or internalized feelings of inferiority. Their study found that White males performed worse on a math test than their control group counterparts when it was suggested that Asians are better at math. It seems reasonable that all groups have a negative stereotype that can be made salient in circumstances where there is pressure to perform.

Much of the research focuses on test performance; however, there have been studies confirming that stereotype threat could be induced in other domains as well. For example, a 2005 study done by Paul Davies, Steven Spencer, and Steele confirmed that exposure to gender stereotypes about leadership affected female participants’ interest in taking on a leadership role. Women who had been exposed to the negative stereotypes about women’s abilities in leadership were less interested in assuming a position of leadership on the task.

Consequences of Stereotype Threat

Consequences of stereotype threat are numerous. It can create a setting where a socially constructed concept can interfere with the measurement of constructs such as intelligence. Currently, high-stakes testing is used as a gatekeeper to many educational opportunities. Stereotype threat may have a role in lower test scores, which in turn may function to keep people from gaining access to opportunities. Although the concept of stereotype threat has been studied most in the area of academic achievement and the achievement gap, stereotype threat may evidence in other contexts such as work performance. Second, this concept demonstrates how powerful stereotypes are and what the impact of internalized negative stereotypes is. Stereotype threat may create a scenario where there is now a vicious cycle. For example, a person knows of a stereotype for his or her group and, feeling pressured to not conform to a negative expectation for this reference group, the person’s performance on a given task suffers: The person may be denied entrance to the school of his or her choice, or the person may miss other opportunities like jobs or community leadership roles. This denied opportunity can contribute to social inequities, including the achievement and wage gaps. In essence, this concept is critical to understanding the complex effects of stereotyping on performance. There are also effects on self-esteem and confidence for those who perform under their expectations. Many people may not be aware of stereotype threat and may begin to believe that their lower performance was a result of personal characteristics.

Stereotype Threat Mediators

Aronson and Steele published a chapter in 2005 that explored potential mediators of stereotype threat on test performance. Anxiety has been found to be a mediator as negative stereotypes are posited to create more anxiety. The knowledge of a negative stereotype can produce anxiety, which can hinder performance. Stereotype threat can be enacted most powerfully by individuals who care strongly about doing well in a particular domain. Stereotype threat poses a particular jeopardy because it seems to be present even in situations where the student is actually motivated and interested. For example, a female student who wants to attend the best university to study math can do poorly on the math section of an entrance exam because of stereotype threat (i.e., the negative expectation that is operative is that women are not adept at math).

Individuals who have a strong identification with their group are more likely to be aware of the stereotypes about their group. Thus, research has found that people who are the most identified with their group are more affected by stereotype threat. For example, a Latino/a who is highly identified with his or her ethnic group is affected more by stereotype threat than a Latino/a student who does not identify highly with the group. However, that same student may identify highly with being lesbian or female, and therefore stereotype threat may be more salient for the stereotypes about lesbians or females.

In the context of competition among reference groups, stereotype threat can be induced in individuals who believe they are good at the particular exercise. For example, Steele and Aronson showed that stereotype threat can be evoked for White males if they are being compared to a group, such as Asian Americans, who are stereotyped to excel at math. See Aronson and Steele (2005) for a comprehensive review of some of the research results that led to these conclusions.

Stereotype Threat Relevance to Cross-Cultural Counseling

The phenomenon of stereotype threat is relevant to cross-cultural and multicultural counseling in several ways. First counselors need to be aware of the stereotype threat and how it works, as they may evoke stereotype threat through subtle words and/or behaviors when administering tests or during the actual process of counseling. Also, counselors may be in a position to educate those that they come in contact with about the phenomenon so that steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of stereotype threat occurring.


  1. Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C., & Brown, J. (1999). When White men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 39—16.
  2. Aronson, J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Stereotypes and the fragility of academic competence, motivation, and self-concept. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 436—156). New York: Guilford Press.
  3. Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: Identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(2), 276-287.
  4. Martens, A., Johns, M., Greenberg, J., & Schimel, J. (2006). Combating stereotype threat: The effect of self-affirmation on women’s intellectual performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 236-243.
  5. Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.
  6. Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the test performance of academically successful African Americans. In C. Jencks & M. Phillips (Eds.), The Black-White test score gap (pp. 401-127). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

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