Stereotype threat can have detrimental effects on groups that have stereotypes associated with them, for example marginalised groups. It is vital that you learn how to deal with stereotype threat so that you do not fall prey to it. In this post, I will tell you what stereotype threat is, how it works, and what you can do to overcome it.
Stereotype threat is a phenomenon that causes members of certain groups to underperform due to the pressure put on them by stereotypes. When people worry about confirming a certain stereotype, they exert mental energy on worrying, stressing, and anxiety.
There are some studies on the effect of stereotype threat. The result of these studies has been the same: people perform worse on a task when there is a stereotype that works against them and that is relevant to that task.
One study was done in 1999 on the performance of black and white people in sports. The researchers asked both black and white people to put a golf ball in a hole. In the United States especially, there are two stereotypes that were relevant for this study:
During this experiment, the assignment was first framed by the researchers as a test of strategic sports intelligence. In this round, white people performed better than black people. Secondly, the researchers framed the experiment as a test on natural athletic ability. This time, black people performed better than white people. It seems then that the participants’ performances reflected the stereotypes against them.
In 1999, a study was done concerning women and maths tests. There is a stereotype against women that claims that women are worse at maths than men. Again, this experiment consisted of two rounds.
So, a stereotype-defeater was used. The participants performed much better during the second round of the experiment than the first.
In 2000 another study was done concerning women and maths tests. This time, women were placed in a room full of other women and asked to do a maths test. Then, women were put in a room full of men and asked to do the same test. The women in the first group performed much better than the women in the second group. The study furthermore showed that the greater the proportion of men in the group the worse women performed on the test.
This underperformance can reinforce the stereotype. If women consistently underperform on maths tests, this will keep the stereotype that women are bad at maths alive. This, in turn, will enhance the effect of stereotype threat in a vicious cycle.
Now, this all sounds scary. When I first read about stereotype threat, I immediately became worried about how stereotype threat might affect my work at school. I study English and I take some philosophy courses. Were my essays not as good as they could be because I know that many writers and philosophers have been men for centuries? Would I perform better if the stereotype that women are not as rational as men did not exist? Or the stereotype that women are worse at abstract reasoning? Would I perform better at English if I did not know about the stereotype that foreigners are worse at speaking and writing English than people whose native language is English?
You might be feeling these doubts now too. One fact that might reassure you is that it seems that being aware of stereotype threat does not enhance the effect it has on you. So, don’t worry. I did not just doom you to underperformance by telling you about this phenomenon. Knowing about stereotype threat is actually the first step you can take in dealing with stereotype threat. So let’s look at what you can do.
Written by Merel Melchers
Merel is an undergraduate studying English with Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She enjoys reading, writing and playing with her dog. She mainly writes about personal development, student life, and mental health to motivated and guide passionate young women.