Cassie loves math and is really good at it, probably the best in her class. Growing up, she was often told that girls can’t be good at math and other students would make fun of her for her good grades. But that didn’t stop Cassie; she’s in 10th grade now and still excels in math. Cassie’s class is preparing to take the PSAT. She really wants to do well, and began studying weeks beforehand. On the day of the test, Cassie is really nervous: her parents and teachers are expecting her to do well, and she is eager to prove once and for all that girls are good at math. However, before the test begins some of her classmates, aware of Cassie’s aspirations, begin to taunt her. They insist that girls aren’t good at math and predict that she will not do well on the test. When the results are back, Cassie’s math score is much lower than her current subject grade and weeks of prepping show it should be. Everyone knows Cassie can solve these math problems, so they don’t understand what happened.
Individuals fear confirming a negative stereotype about their identity group, and this fear can often lead to anxiety and underperformance. In Cassie’s case, she feared confirming the stereotype that girls aren’t good at math, and this fear caused her to underperform on a test that she was more than prepared for. This is called stereotype threat.
Definition of Stereotype Threat
Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in which an individual is at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype in any applicable situation.
The first paper discussing stereotype threat was published in 1995 by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. It describes four experiments the two ran that confirmed the existence of stereotype threat. The researchers administered intelligence tests to Black and white undergraduates in various situations and measured their performance. When the Black students were confronted with their race (such as when they took a demographic survey before starting the test), or when the test was framed as an intelligence assessment, they did not perform as well as their white counterparts. However when they did not have to fill out a demographic survey, or the test was framed as a problem solving task, Black students performed at the same level as their white counterparts or even outperformed them. Aronson and Steele cited these experiments as proof of what they called stereotype threat.
All of us belong to multiple identity groups, and therefore, we are all vulnerable to stereotype threats. However, studies have shown that there are many ways to counteract these threats. One of these ways is simply understanding that your performance can be negatively affected by the burden of stereotypes. When participants were educated on this subject matter prior to a math or intelligence test, their performance was not hindered by stereotype threat. This knowledge allowed them to attribute their anxieties to the psychological phenomenon instead of questioning their ability. Further, thinking about a role model who defied the stereotype in question also subverted the threat. For example, Black students who were prompted with Obama’s accomplishments went on to perform well on intelligence tests.
Lastly, the reinforcement of one’s individuality, separate from the stereotype, also minimizes stereotype threats. Reminding yourself that you are a person and not simply a statistic of your identity group can help anytime that you feel you might succumb to a stereotype. In some studies, something as simple as listing their favorite things or even things they were good or bad at improved performance among women on math tests.
So if you’re about to take an important test, think about your role models, remind yourself that you’re not just a statistic, and, most importantly, remember that stereotype threats do not control you.