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I Want to Tell You About Stereotype Threats

Let’s say you belong to a group of people about whom there are common stereotypes.

And let’s say that you are about to do something that is supposedly difficult for someone of your race or gender. Just before you start, someone reminds you that your group usually does less well at this kind of task.

Guess what happens?

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Women, for example, (in general) perform less well on math tests when they are reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math.

White males (in general) perform less well on math tests when they are reminded of the stereotype that Asians are better at math than whites.

Without those reminders, both women and white males perform just as well as anybody else.

Stereotype threat has a strong impact on performance, and it can be triggered from even subtle cues, like having students check a box indicating what their gender is at the top of a math test.

These are just two examples, but this is a fairly common phenomenon. Behaviors, physical strength, academic achievement—performance in any number of areas can suffer with stereotype reminders.

Here’s the general sequence:

  1. A member of a target group remembers (is reminded of) a negative stereotype
  2. The person performs less well
  3. The poor performance reinforces the stereotype
  4. The negative cycle repeats

Here’s why I want to tell you about stereotype threat: It’s common, it’s terrible, and we can reduce it significantly.

People can counteract the effects by learning self-affirmation techniques. First, they become conscious of the threat. Second they think of their own related and important values. These two actions help to reduce the negative cycle.

Becoming conscious of this often-insidious barrier to people doing their best work is half the battle. We can teach others to self-affirm, if we think they are at risk. In addition, we can work to remove indicators, both obvious and subtle, from learning and work environments to reduce the dangers that stereotype threat poses to learning and performance.

This is not perfectly easy, but we can make a lot of progress if we learn to pay attention, assist people to overcome the threat, and remove it as much as possible. Reducing stereotype threat provides a powerful opportunity to uncover gains in learning and performance that already exist just beneath the surface.


Article | Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap

Site | Reducing Stereotype Effects

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