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Stereotype Threat: What is it and what can we do to avoid its effects?

Updated on August 17, 2017
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Anne has a BSc in Applied Psychology and has qualifications in counselling CBT & mindfulness. She teaches mindfulness workshops and courses.

Everyone belongs to some group that may be open to stereotyping

Stereotypes | Source

Introduction: What is a Stereotype and Stereotype Threat?

Most of us know the meaning of stereotype: It’s an idea, opinion, judgement or expectation that is widely held about a particular group of people.

And whenever we are in a situation where we are consciously aware that we may be stereotyped, then we are feeling stereotype threat.

In this hub, I will be outlining some of the examples and scenarios where stereotype thereat is a common problem, and what research has shown us about these scenarios.

I will also discuss some of the solutions that researchers and college lecturers have come up with, and I will share a personal example of overcoming stereotype threat.


People can be stereotyped if they are old, female, rich, poor, if they have black skin, if they have white skin, if they're male, American, Asian, Irish, etc, etc. The list is endless and of course most of us fit into one or more of these groups. For example, I fit into several stereotype groups, as I am aged 58 (considered old by some), female, white and Irish.

Subconscious Stereotyping

We know that stereotypes are oversimplified and generalized. We know that we need to disregard them whenever we are making any evaluations or judgments about others, and yet, we also know that we consciously and subconsciously apply them all the time. In fact our perceptions of others and our tendency to stereotype are more often subconscious than conscious. And it was only when I read that amazing book by by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People that I realized just how many incorrect perceptions and stereotyping I was guilty of. Banaji and Greenwald go into some detail about our blind spots regarding social groups, but the good news is, they also teach us how to become more aware of when we are doing this. In other words, they help our subconscious thoughts become more conscious.

Stereotype Threat

Some stereotypes are positive, but what about those of us who belong to a group that is commonly known to have a negative stereotype? And what if we are in a situation where we are aware that we could confirm that stereotype by how we behave or perform?

For example if I am introduced to someone while I have an alcoholic drink in my hand, and I immediately forget their name, I have probably just confirmed at least two stereotypes. And because the groups we belong to are generally based on our identity, then we carry that awareness of negative stereotyping around with us any time we come up against a situation that involves that stereotype. This is known as “stereotype threat”.

I have probably just confirmed two stereotypes

Stereotype | Source

Whistling Vivaldi

I first came across the phrase, "stereotype threat" while reading a book by Claude M. Steele with the intriguing title of Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The title of the book comes from a story told to Steele by a young African American Psychology student called Brent.

Whenever Brent was walking home at night through a neighborhood known for violent crime, and was dressed in a hoodie and jeans, he noticed that people were afraid of him. In his own words,

They reached for one another’s hand when they saw me. Some crossed to the other side of the street.”

This in turn made Brent feel nervous and he did what many of us do when we’re nervous, he began to whistle. And because he liked classical music and listened to it a lot, he began to whistle Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

What happened next surprised Brent. The people he passed by were no longer afraid of him. Some even smiled at him. He realized that by whistling Vivaldi, he was showing them that he was an educated young man, an identity that did not fit into the stereotype of a violent youth.[1]

By whistling Vivaldi, he was showing them an identity that did not fit into the stereotype of a violent youth.


Women and Math and Stereotype Threat

Claude M. Steele went on to study Stereotype Threat for many years, and all of his experiments with people showed the same thing: When people are carrying out a task or assignment that is important to them, such as a significant exam or a key sports match, stereotype threat can actually have a negative effect on their performance.

For example, when women were competing against women in a mathematics test, they always got better results than when they were competing against men. But, if they were told beforehand that women always performed well in the test, their results were equally as good as or better than the men’s. So in other words, once the stereotype threat (That women are not good at math) was removed, the women performed up to the same standard as the men. [2]

Once the stereotype threat was removed, the women performed to the same standard as men.


Who Cares About Stereotype Threat?

Steele studied several common stereotype groups, and he had the same result in them all. When they were under stereotype threat, the groups performed badly, when the threat was removed, they performed to their usual high standard.

But who cares about all this stuff besides women who are studying mathematics, short basketball players or young African American men walking home at night in a dodgy neighbourhood? Well, yes, they care about it, but if most of us belong to at least one negative stereotyped group, (And personally I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t) then we all need to aware of it, and to care about it.

What Can We Do About Stereotype Threat?

However, caring about it is not enough. So what can we do about it? Well, whenever we’re aware that we are under stereotype threat, the instinctive thing to do is to put our head down, knit our brows together and try hard to prove the stereotype wrong. And this can work in some cases. But other times, we are so intent on getting there, we actually lose sight of the path.

Claude M. Steele cites an example of this in his book: A lecturer in Berkeley noticed that the African American students in his first-year calculus class were not performing as well as the Asian or White students. Now he knew from academic records of these students that they were every bit as intelligent and able as the others, so why were they not getting similar results in his class? On delving into the problem in depth, he found that the Asian and White students studied in groups and tackled the calculus problems together. They also had no difficulty with approaching a tutor to ask their help and advice whenever they got stuck. In doing so they did not get caught up in getting the correct answers, thus leaving more time to study the actual principles behind the answers. But Asian and White students were not under stereotype threat.

Listen to Claude M. Steele tell you about stereotype threat.

Looking Closer to Find a Solution to Stereotype Threat

The African American students, who did feel under stereotype threat, did not want to discuss any difficulties with tutors or fellow students because they did not want to admit that they were finding it difficult. And because they weren’t discussing it with other students, they thought they were the only one who was finding it difficult, thereby proving the stereotype in their own mind. So they would knuckle down and try even harder, until they were exhausted and dispirited and still getting worse grades. Some even dropped out altogether, believing that they were not actually good enough to be at Berkeley after all. Pushing against the stereotype in this case resulted in a situation that appeared to prove it.

But when the Lecturer got all students to work in groups and to discuss any problems with their fellow students and tutors, the African American students got the same results as the rest of the class.

Finding Ways of Tackling Stereotype Threat

So where does that leave us? Well, first we need to be aware when we are feeling under stereotype threat. So next time you’re feeling under pressure to work harder and get as good if not better results than your peers, ask yourself why this is. Then, take a look at ways of tackling the stereotype other than putting your head down and pushing harder. Maybe notice how others are working; those who are not under the same threat and those who are.

Perhaps you could even approach someone whom you believe does not see you as a stereotype and ask for their help or insight. Or you could carefully approach someone in your group who might also be under stereotype threat, either the same or different as yours.

A Personal Account of Tackling Stereotype Threat

As a 50+- year-old undergraduate psychology student in a class where most of the students were 18-20-years-old, I found myself in this very situation. So I approached the only other mature student of a similar age to myself.

I began by admitting my feeling of being under pressure without asking whether they did too. As I hoped, my admission was enough for them to open up as well. So we worked together in the beginning, boosting one another’s confidence, until by the end of the first semester, we were feeling more self-assured when working in groups with the younger students. And we disproved all the negative stereotype of the over 50’s female student by getting first class honors in every subject, including statistics, in every exam, for all four years. We also made long lasting friendships with some of the younger students as well. Does that mean we proved a positive stereotype?

Disproving the Stereotype of the Over-50-Mature-Female-Student


Perhaps The Ultimate Solution to Stereotype Threat

I have one more book to recommend to you. This is one I have read and dipped into often: The title is What If?: Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue and is written by the inspiring Steve Long-Nguyen Robbins. And Robbins has another solution for stereotyping and stereotype threat. Using short stories, some of them deeply personal, he writes about how we can create inclusion and unity within diversity, particularly within organizations and communities. Robbins opens his readers’ mind to discovering the lessons that diversity can teach us, rather than fearing it. This is, in my opinion, the ultimate solution to stereotyping and stereotype threat.

Main points at a glance

What is Stereotype?
It’s an idea, opinion, judgement or expectation that is widely held about a particular group of people.
Can You Give Me an Example of a Stereotype?
There are as many examples as there are groups, but if you're old, young, rich, poor, black, white, male, female, American or Irish, you could be feel under stereotype threat.
What is Subconscious Stereotyping?
We’re not always aware that we are stereotyping. In fact, most of us have “blind spots” or unconscious prejudices regarding certain social groups.
What is Stereotype Threat?
It is an anxiety that we will be judged negatively because we belong to a particular group that we know has a negative stereotype. This can have a serious effect on our performance.
Who is Effected by Stereotype Threat?
As everyone belongs to one or more groups within a lifetime, and all groups are prone to being stereotyped, then anyone can be under stereotype threat.
Can You Give an Example of a Group Effected by Stereotype Threat
It was found that women underperform at math tests when competing with men.
What Can We Do If We Feel Under Stereotype Threat?
If we feel under threat, we could try harder to disprove the stereotype. But if that doesn’t work, then we could look at how everyone else is working, those who are not under the same threat, and those who are. We could work together with others under the same threat. Or we could ask for help.
What Can We Do To Avoid Stereotyping and Stereotype Threat?
We Can Encourage Diversity and Inclusion Within our Community and Organizations
Summary of Stereotype Threat: What Is It and What Can We Do To Avoid Its Effects?

Have You Ever Felt Under Stereotype Threat?

See results


[1] Staples, B. Black Men and Public Space. (December 1986) Harper’s Magazine.

[2] Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35, 4-28.


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