What is Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threat describes the experience of “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype of one’s group” (Steel & Aronson, 1995). This social-psychological phenomenon has been shown to significantly decrease the performance of persons who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. These groups or units can refer to just about any type of social classification such as gender, race, religion, economic class, age, political affiliation, sexual orientation, etc.

Essentially, as long as a negative stereotype exists for a particular group and this negative stereotype is present in a given social setting, that group’s members will likely feel a measure of anxiety which can prevent them from performing at their optimal level. Stereotype threat is most vividly observed in individuals who identify strongly with the negatively stereotyped social group, who identify with the intellectual domain in which they are being tested and who expect discrimination – perhaps due to past experiences in their personal lives (Steele, Spencer & Aronson, 2002).

It is important to note though, that stereotype threat is not the primary cause of the disparity in performance between different social groups. These performance gaps might exist even when stereotype threat is eliminated from a particular setting. However, the gaps have been shown to widen when stereotype threat is introduced into the testing environment (American Psychological Association, 2006). Additionally, persons do not necessarily need to believe the stereotypes that negatively label their social groups in order to be affected by stereotype threat. The realization that other persons might believe the stereotype is enough to trigger anxiety in the sufferer and lead to a drop in performance.


American Psychological Association. (2006, July 15). Retrieved on April 24, 2012 from http://www.apa.org/research/action/stereotype.aspx

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. Retrieved on April 24, 2012 from http://www.nber.org/~sewp/events/2005.01.14/Bios+Links/Good-rec2-Steele_&_Aronson_95.pdf

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J. & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 379-440. Retrieved on April 24, 2012 from http://disjointedthinking.jeffhughes.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Steele-Spencer-Aronson-2002.-Contending-with-group-image.pdf

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