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What is stereotype threat and why do researchers care?

I recently polled a group of my friends, who are generally well-educated, politically-aware types, to find out if my sense that "stereotype threat" is a fairly well-known and well-understood concept in at least my circle. I was, therefore, surprised to discover that 54 of the 66 people who responded reported never having heard of stereotype threat. Six people had heard the term but couldn't define it, and only three described themselves as being familiar with the concept.

Since stereotype threat is one of my favorite psychological concepts relating to group performance on challenging tasks, these results give me a good excuse to write a blog post about it.

A lot of people think stereotype threat is when someone who is part of a group is in a situation where she or he perceives that her or his behavior will support stereotypes of that group and thus deliberately behaves in a different way. For example, in order to be taken seriously, a woman might choose to wear less makeup to a business meeting than she would normally wear to work. This is an interesting social phenomenon, but it is not stereotype threat.

So what is stereotype threat?

Stereotype threat is the fear that one's behavior will support an existing group stereotype, and the result of that fear is that the subject will unconsciously underperform as a result of the threat. That is to say, if I am in a group that is stereotyped to be less good at something, for example, being a woman in mathematics, if that stereotype is triggered just before I take a challenging math test, I will perform less well than I would if that stereotype were not activated.

This understanding of stereotype was first articulated and documented by Claude Steel at Stanford University, and there's a lot of interesting work being done on the topic, including the research I discussed in Exposure to Scientific Theories Could Be Hazardous to Women's Math Skills.

We're not talking about intentional underperformance, but a subconscious self-handicapping that happens when people in any given group are put in the position of fearing that they may be living down to external expectations about their behavior. Fascinatingly, this fear appears to cause people to just the thing they most likely desperately want to avoid.

The performance-depressing effect has been demonstrated among female students in math and black students in many fields (most of that article is behind a paywall), among others.

This is relevant to the work of FairerScience.org, and perhaps yours, too, because so much of what we study is group differences in fields where strong social stereotypes exist. When we find a difference in boys' and girls' performances on math tests, is it a real difference, or is it a result of activated stereotypes among the test-takers? We can't know, but it is important to keep in mind that the entire equation is complicated.

Interesting work is being done by researchers exploring how to counteract stereotype threat. For example, Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention (behind a paywall) reports the results of a study using self affirmations of personal adequacy or "self-integrity" to reduce stereotype threat and as the title suggests, increased minority student achievement and reduced the gaps.

By using what we know and continue to learn about stereotype threat and its impact, we can target interventions to counteract its effects. But first we have to know about it.