Decades of research by award-winning psychologist Claude Steele and others demonstrate the impact of “stereotype threat” on various types of people.
What is it?
Stereotype threat is anxiety arising from a person’s awareness of a negative stereotype about a group they belong to in a situation where the stereotype is relevant and thus confirmable. That means when people are in a situation where a stereotype about their identity is relevant, they are afraid they might confirm a bad view of their group and themselves and may be judged or suffer negative consequences due to the stereotype.
When in this potentially stressful situation, a person’s mind races. Concern about the stereotype threat (which may not be conscious) induces vigilance, rumination, self-doubt, and constant monitoring of one’s behavior and performance. These processes use mental capacity, distracting a person from the task at hand, which worsen performance and general functioning, which in a vicious cycle further intensifies the vigilance for threat and the diversion of attention.
Stereotype threat is not the same as discrimination or prejudice; in fact, it exists even in the absence of discriminatory people or actions because of the pervasiveness of stereotypes. As Steele put it in Whistling Vivaldi,
“Negative stereotypes about our identities hover in the air around us. When we are in situations to which these stereotypes are relevant, we understand that we could be judged or treated in terms of them. If we are invested in what we’re doing, we get worried; we try to disprove the stereotype or avoid confirming it. We present ourselves in counter-stereotypical ways. We avoid situations where we have to contend with this pressure. It’s not all-determining, but it persistently, often beneath our awareness, organizes our actions and choices, our lives.” (209-10)
How it matters in our classrooms
There are many negative results from stereotype threat. It distracts people. It affects feelings of belonging and trust, which matter both in classrooms and on campus. It affects behaviors, such as where a person chooses to sit in a room, and how close they are to others; what field students choose to go into and whether to stay in that field; and it impacts academic strategies like ‘over-efforting’ and whether or not to join a study group. The chronic stress causes health problems. Perhaps most seriously, stereotype threat affects performance on a variety of tasks, including on memory tests, physical tasks like playing golf, and standardized tests and course exams.
Who is vulnerable to stereotype threat?
Anyone could be. Scores of experiments have replicated the effects on different groups of people, including white male sprinters doing athletic tasks that are stereotyped as having to do with “natural ability,” African Americans on the GRE, college females on tests said to measure mathematical ability, European Americans concerned about their performance compared to Asians in math, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds on intellectual tasks, whites concerned about being seen as racist, and men compared with women on social sensitivity, to name a few.
Stereotypes can be about gender, racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic class, religious affiliations, region, nationality, age, etc. Steele points out that there are negative stereotypes about just about every group of people, so anyone could be vulnerable. But stereotype threat is contextual – meaning different stereotypes are more salient in different situation.
So it’s wise for us to know our campuses and our disciplines. In some fields, there are stereotypes about women while in others, there are ones about men. On some campuses, certain groups of students are in the minority or stereotyped, while it might be different students on other campuses.
What can we do about stereotype threat?
There is good news. “Doing quite feasible things to reduce these threats can lead to dramatic improvements in these problems,” reports Steele.
Research has suggested certain strategies can reduce the impact of stereotype threat:
Represent critical skills as learnable. Emphasize the expandability of intelligence and the learnability of skills in your field (because some believe that they simply can’t do something like math, writing, foreign languages).
Be attentive to the cues you send in your teaching environment. Speak about diversity as a positive value, explicitly welcome everyone, include diverse examples and perspectives, use diversity as a resource, and be aware of issues students might encounter. Cues include official statements and the language we use as well as readings, topics social organization, music, images, etc. One caveat: consider whether examples portray stereotypical or prejudicial assumptions about social groups.
Frame tests/discussions/assignments in ways that don’t trigger stereotype threat. Frame difficult discussions as learning experiences. (This has proven more effective than saying things like, “Don’t worry; there will be no ramifications for your views” or “Disagreements are normal.” Before an exam, remind students of identities that counter the relevant stereotype, boost esteem (“You’re Elon students”) or ask them to affirm their values; reassure them that no particular groups of students do better than others on this particular test.
Foster informal cross-identity group conversations or formal cross-cultural study or project groups. These interactions help to reveal that a student’s identity is not the sole cause of struggles in the setting; they also discourage ineffective individual “over-efforting” in an unproductive direction. Study groups help students develop higher-order skills in some disciplines. Foster awareness of the multiple components of each person’s identity.
Give feedback in a way that simultaneously inspires trust and motivates. Stress that you used high standards in evaluating the work AND that you believe student can meet those standards.
Establish trust through demanding but supportive relationships. Faculty-student mentoring relationships seem to work when they are calm, work-focused, straightforward, and demanding but supportive. Eventually these sorts of relationships can lessen anxiety and can motivate students, both of which lead to better performance.
Foster hopeful narratives about belonging in the setting. Expose students to a narrative that explains their frustrations while projecting positive engagement and success in the setting. Rather than denying or ignoring struggles, demonstrate that similar people who came before them experienced uncertainty and worried about belonging, but after that, they achieved success and a sense of belonging. Provide a variety of role models.
Allow students to affirm their most valued sense of self. Writing about one’s most important values seems to bring one’s sense of competence and worth back into view and threatening cues less important; this reflection might work because it interrupts a negative recursive process. You might also encourage reflection upon their skills and positive characteristics.
Help students understand stereotype threat. Help them understand their academic strengths and weaknesses. Make a visit to office hours mandatory. Share your own struggles on the path that led to your success.
Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do. Norton, 2010.
Steven Stroessner and Catherine Good, ReducingStereotypeThreat.org – synthesizes recent scholarship on who is impacted, how it impacts people, and how to reduce its impact.