Social Psychology Glossary (3): Stereotype threat

Welcome to the Social Psychology Glossary!

In these posts, I will explain Social Psychology terms and theories and add some examples from research. 

These terms and theories help social psychologists understand how people perceive others, interact with them, and make judgments about the social world and its members. These psychological processes can impact well-being and decision-making: being aware of their existence is a key factor that helps individuals and society to move towards gender diversity, gender equality, and equality in general. 

Today we will explain what stereotype threat is.

Let’s start!

Stereotype threat

What if a person with a stigmatized identity acknowledges some negative stereotypes associated with their identity? Negative stereotypes represent the descriptive, cognitive components of our knowledge about groups that have a negative social value (i.e., being lazy, see the post about stereotypes). What if those negative stereotypes are activated in their brain while completing a related task? What would happen then?

In 1954, Gordon Allport, a renowned psychologist, discussed this specific topic. As mentioned in the post about stereotypes, a stereotype is not an accurate description of individuals. Instead,  it’s culturally learned knowledge from an early age that can impact how we think and behave even if we believe it’s false. Social groups can be associated with negative stereotypes, for example about the (low) ability to perform certain tasks. Allport noticed that when a person knows a negative stereotype associated with one of their identities, there might be a sneaky effect by which knowledge of that stereotype is activated, causing people to perform or behave badly, thus confirming the stereotype. This process is called stereotype threat.

Let’s look at an example. One of the stereotypes associated with women is that they are not so good at numbers (although – disclaimer –  a woman can be very skilled in math). According to the model of Stereotype threat we have described, when a woman is about to tackle a difficult math task and that stereotype is activated, there is a high chance that she will underperform. 

This hypothesis was empirically tested by Cadinu and colleagues in 2005. Before completing a math task, women read a statement that endorsed or invalidated the existence of the stereotype. Women who read the statement that endorsed the stereotype performed worse (M = 3.93)  than women who read the statement that invalidated it (M = 4.87).

So, what are the implications of this process? 

Firstly, we can think about the consequences for members of stigmatized groups. Stereotype threat presents a barrier to their success: the awareness of one’s social group identity can be enough to cause underperformance. 

Secondly, it’s important to consider that the stereotype threat model involves a stigmatizing belief that comes first (i.e., the negative stereotype), and a behavior that comes second (i.e., women underperforming in a math task). Apparently, the stereotype and the behavior are congruent, but this model shows that the existence and availability of the belief cause the underperforming behavior. In other words, the knowledge and activation of the negative stereotype are in themselves a cause of the negative behaviors, not the reverse. The type of belief has a strong impact on the performance, and the performance is affected by people’s thoughts.

In conclusion, stereotype threat can be an obstacle to the advancement and accomplishments of members of stigmatized groups, and it shows how beliefs and cognition impact behaviors. Negative stereotypes, however, are not the only way of conveying negative evaluations of social groups. Social psychologists distinguish (negative) stereotypes from prejudice, which is the topic of our next post.

Suggested Readings:

Allport, G.W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley.

Cadinu, M., Maass, A., Rosabianca, A., & Kiesner, J. (2005). Why do women underperform under stereotype threat? Evidence for the role of negative thinking. Psychological Science, 16, 572–578

Case, Federica (2022). Social Psychology Glossary (2): Stereotype. Solutions.

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.

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