Stereotype Threat

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn what stereotype threat means and how to prevent it from impacting your success as a graduate student.


“Once you label me you negate me.” ? Søren Kierkegaard

What is Stereotype Threat?

Do you ever feel that you represent all women? Have you ever found yourself saying something stupid even though you are trying hard not to? Have you found yourself thinking about what other women would say in the same situation?

Stereotype threat1 occurs when an individual is faced with an opportunity to confirm or disconfirm a negative stereotype about his or her group, usually related to ability. This leads to performance anxiety, which can impact actual performance.

Several empirical studies have provided evidence for the theory of stereotype threat:

  • In one experiment,1a group of African Americans and a group of white Americans were asked to perform a task. Both groups were told that this task measured intellectual ability. Another group of African Americans and another group of white Americans were asked to perform the same task, but were not told that this task measured ability. The group of African Americans that were told that the task measured ability performed worse than any other group in the study, suggesting that a phenomena like stereotype threat was at play.
  • A similar study examined stereotype threat using a sample of white men.2This study compared math performance of two different groups of white men, both with higher than average SAT scores. The first group was told that Asian Americans tend to do better than whites on math. The second group was told nothing about normative performance before beginning the task. The first group of white men performed worse on the math performance test.
  • Studies have suggested that women’s performance (engineering and math performance in particular) in male-dominated settings can be negatively impacted by stereotype threat.3,4,5
  • Research has also found that the effects of stereotype threat might depend on the type of one’s identity that is most salient at a particular time.6Asian American women performed well on a test of quantitative ability when their race/ethnicity was made salient, but performed worse overall when their gender was made salient.

How Does This Relate to You?

Success in graduate school highly relates to performance and ability. If you are of the minority gender, race, or ethnicity in your program, you might experience stereotype threat.

If you are unaware of the effects of stereotype threat and do not understand where performance anxiety is coming from, your confidence might take a hit. As explained in the Coping & Self-Efficacy module, this lowered confidence can have consequences for your motivation and future performance.


True or False? Being a woman in a male-dominated field can potentially have a negative affect on academic performance.

The correct answer is True. In situations that call for a member of a particular minority to uphold or disconfirm a stereotype related to their minority, they can experience significant stress and/or anxiety. This in turn can cause them to under/over-perform in response, thus “living up” to the stereotype. In these cases, it is not a true indicator of the person’s ability, but actually an environmental effect known as Stereotype Threat. The following will explain this phenomenon in more detail.

What Can You Do About It?

In this case, knowing is half the battle. If you are able to recognize that your anxiety is related to stereotype threat (as opposed to a lack of ability), you might be able to reduce the anxiety and the negative effects of stereotype threat.


  1. Steele, C. M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance ofAfrican Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797- 811.doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797
  2. Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can't do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29-46. doi:10.1006/jesp.1998.1371
  3. Bell, A. E., Spencer, S. J., Iserman, E., & Logel, C.E.R. (2003). Stereotype threat andwomen's performance in engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 92,307-312.
  4. Aronson, J., Quinn, D. M., & Spencer, S. (1998). Stereotype threat and the academic underperformance of minorities and women. In J. K. Swim & C. Stangor (Eds.), Prejudice: The target’s perspective (pp. 88-103). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  5. Osborne, J. W., (2001). Testing stereotype threat: Does anxiety explain race and sex differences in achievement? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, 291-310.doi:10.1006/ceps.2000.1052
  6. Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 80-83.doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00111

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