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How to Deal with Stereotype Threat

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.

What is Stereotype Threat?

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. 

How Does Stereotype Threat Work?

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.

  1. 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: 
    • White people perform worse than black people in sports
    • White people are more intelligent than black people. 

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.

  1. 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. 
    • In the first round, women were given maths tests and they were just told that these were maths tests. 
    • In the second round, women were given the same test. The participants were told that some people believed that women performed worse than men on this particular test but that earlier tests had shown that women actually perform just as well as men on this test.

 So, a stereotype-defeater was used. The participants performed much better during the second round of the experiment than the first. 

  1. 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. 

What You Can Do to Overcome Stereotype Threat

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.

  1. Change your environment. This is something that the philosophy department at my school has actually done. In the philosophy building, there was a wall with pictures of all the chairmen for the philosophy department from the late 19th century up until now. This was a wall that was, as my professor put it, a wall covered with pictures of old white dudes. The philosophy department decided to take these pictures down. Instead, every professor got to put up a picture of the philosopher they most admired. The wall now looks a lot more diverse. You can do this too. Put up pictures of the people you most admire. For example, I made a collage of female writers I was a fan of. 
  2. Presentational cues. Now, this is something you could do to help others when you organize an event, a task, or a test. As we’ve seen in the 1999 studies, the way you frame a task is very important. So you could say something like: “women performed especially well on this test in previous years.” Just make sure you do not exclude anyone. For example, if you are hosting a workshop, you could say that every participant who took this workshop last year did very well. This counteracts stereotype threat as you are letting the participants know that membership of a certain group did not have a negative effect on the participants from that group. 
  3. Provide role models. I know that most philosophers are men. I also know that (nearly) all classical philosophers are men. There is a stereotype that women are not rational, analytical, critical, or intelligent enough for philosophy. So, before I start an essay for a philosophy course, I look up the pictures of female philosophers that I admire. Whenever I read a text by a female philosopher that I think is well-written, I write down her name so I can look up her picture later. I go through the pictures before and during the essay-writing process. You can also think about people you admire and why you admire them. This is a stereotype defeat or stereotype buster. You are showing yourself that the stereotype is not true. This works especially well when you are aware of the stereotype but don’t believe in it. You are convincing your subconscious. 
  4. Self-affirmation. Before I start on an assignment I will look at the skills required for the specific assignment and tell myself that those are skills that I am good at. For example, before writing an essay, I will go back to the marks and feedback I have gotten on previous essays for that course or subject area and focus on the positives (use all feedback when you’re focused on improving your skills of course. For now, we are just trying to gain some confidence). I will tell myself that I am good at abstract thinking and provide examples for myself. I will tell myself that I am good at constructing an argument and provide examples for myself. Here, we want to get away from the stereotype. I am not concerned about what women or foreigners are good at. It’s about what I as an individual is good at. So, give yourself a little pep talk!
  5. Identify with a high-achieving group. I am a woman. I am a foreigner. But I am also a student. Students are a group that is associated with high achievement and intelligence. So, instead of worrying about whether there are stereotypes against me because I am female or from a foreign country, I can focus on just being a student. Here, again, I am taking focus away from the parts of my identity that have stereotypes working against it. But I am also focusing on the part of my identity that has stereotypes working for it. I am, in effect, using stereotype threat to my advantage. 
  6. Use (false) stereotype busters. So this is a funny one. Some studies suggest that if you temporarily try to convince your subconscious of false stereotypes about the group that you are a member of, it can help reduce stereotype threat. If you do this for a group you are not a part of, it could also reduce implicit biases you may have against that group. So, I will tell myself, with complete confidence, that all classical philosophers are women. Aristotle, Plato, etc.? Yup! All women! And did you know that women are famously good at reasoning and analytical thinking? Women are great at philosophy. So I have nothing to worry about. This technique is best practised right before you start your assignment or presentation, as its effects don’t last very long. Even if you don’t believe that this will work, you might as well try it anyway because it’s really fun to do.

Good luck! And don’t let stereotype threat affect your performance. You can do this because you are awesome!

Written by Merel Melchers

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