Stereotype threat:

How your child’s beliefs about people can hinder his performance in school...and life

© 2008-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Stereotype threat

Does your child believe that "people like me" don't do well academically?

If so, he or she may suffer the consequences of stereotype threat.

What is it?

In the mid 1990s, psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson introduced the hypothesis that people perform worse on tests when they become self-conscious about negative stereotypes pertaining to their ethnicity or sex (Steele and Aronson 1995).

For instance, an African American kid might be anxious about his academic performance because he doesn’t want to confirm a stereotype that portrays blacks as academically inferior. As a result of his anxiety, his performance deteriorates.

Experimental evidence

Lest this sound airy-fairy, there is a lot of experimental evidence confirming the effect. For example, a recent study administered Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (APM), a highly-regarded intelligence test, to African American and Caucasian undergraduates (Brown and Ray 2006). Students took the APM under three different conditions.

  • In one condition, students were given the standard instructions for taking the test.
  • In another, students were also told that the APM was an IQ test.
  • In a third condition, the APM wasn’t presented as a test at all. Students were told that APM was a set of puzzles and that the researchers wanted their opinions of them.

Consistent with stereotype threat theory, the African Americans did more poorly than did the Caucasians when the APM was presented as a test (conditions 1 and 2). When the APM wasn’t pitched as a test, African Americans performed just as well as Caucasians did.

Stereotype threat can affect people from all walks of life

Originally, Steele and Aronson applied their theory to understand why African Americans perform more poorly on academic tests. But over the years stereotype threat theory has been applied to other situations.

For instance, stereotype threat has been found to affect the elderly on tests of memory (Hess et al 2009).

It's been identified in white male college students who, when reminded of the stereotype of the Asian mathematics whiz, suffered worse scores on math tests (Aronson et al 1999).

It's been reported for primary school boys who believe that girls are academically superior (Hartley and Sutton 2013).

Beyond test anxiety: How stereotype threat might prevent kids from learning...and steer them away from good careers

Stereotype threat may influence more than the way we take tests.

There is evidence that people under stereotype threat don't learn well in the first place (Rydell et al 2010). Stereotype may affect our whole approach to education. It may even influence our choice of careers.

For example:

  • People who suffer from stereotype threat are more likely to discount the validity or fairness of tests (Lesko and Corpus 2006; Klein et al 2007). Presumably, this can make people less motivated to attend school.
  • Students don’t work as hard when they believe they belong to a group with “natural ability" (Stone 2002)

Case closed?

Can stereotype threat explain all achievement disparities? Clearly not. There are many reasons why some groups outperform others.

For example, kids raised by traditional Chinese parents may have several cultural advantages that increase their chances of academic success.

And in an analysis of research testing the effects of stereotype threat on women's math achievement, Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary (2012) report that many studies have suffered from methodological flaws. When the researchers confined analysis to studies that met their methodological standards, only 1 in 3 studies detected an effect.

Stoet and Geary are concerned that psychologists and policymakers have embraced stereotype threat as the last word. Eliminate stereotype threat, and you'll eliminate the gender gap that exists for exceptional achievers in mathematics. No need to try other approaches, like new instructional techniques.

So there are good reasons to be cautious. We shouldn't assume that addressing stereotype threat will eliminate all social disparities in achievement.

What we can do

Obviously, you can't single-handedly blot out stereotypes in the public mind.

But there are some concrete steps you can take to help free your child from the effects of social stereotypes.

Teach your kids about the effects of stereotype threat

Simply understanding this phenomenon can help defuse its effects.

In one study, students performed better on tests after being told that their test anxiety could be the result of negative stereotypes and has "nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test" (Johns et al 2005).

Don’t remind students of group identity before they take a test

When the Educational Testing Service stopped asking students to state their sex at the beginning of the AP calculus test, female students improved their scores (Danaher and Crandall 2008).

Encourage your child to adopt an effort-based or "growth" theory of intelligence

When kids believe that intelligence is a fixed, unchangeable entity, they may be especially vulnerable to the effects of stereotype threat.
Conversely, embracing a “growth" theory of intelligence seems to inoculate students against the effects of stereotype threat (Aronson et al 2002; Good et al 2007; Bagès and Martinot 2011).

For more information, see this article about the “entity" and “incremental" theories of intelligence.

Offer kids stereotype-defying role models

Experiments suggest that we can counteract stereotype threat by presenting students with positive role models -- extraordinary achievers who defy social stereotypes -- and reminding students of these success stories before big tests (McIntyre et al 2005; Bagès and Martinot 2011).

Give kids fairs tests—and reassure kids that tests are fair

When kids are left believing that tests aren’t fair, their motivation is undermined.


Aronson J, Fried CB, and Good C. 2002. Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125.

Aronson J, Lustina MJ, Good C, Keough K, Steele CM, and Brown J. 1999. When White Men Can’t Do Math: Necessary and Sufficient Factors in Stereotype Threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29-46.

Bagès C and Martinot D. 2011. What is the best model for girls and boys faced with a standardized mathematics evaluation situation: a hardworking role model or a gifted role model? Br J Soc Psychol. 50(3):536-43.

Brown RP and Ray EA 2006. The difference isn't black and white: stereotype threat and the race gap on Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices. J Appl Psychol. 91(4):979-85.

Danaher K and Crandall CS. 2008. Stereotype threat in applied settings re-examined. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 1639-1655.

Galdi S, Cadinu M, and Tomasetto C. 2013. The Roots of Stereotype Threat: When Automatic Associations Disrupt Girls' Math Performance. Child Dev. 2013 May 28. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12128. [Epub ahead of print]

Hartley BL and Sutton RM. 2013. A stereotype threat account of boys' academic underachievement. Child Dev. 84(5):1716-33.

Hess TM, Hinson JT, and Hodges EA. 2009. Moderators of and mechanisms underlying stereotype threat effects on older adults' memory performance. Exp Aging Res. 35(2):153-77.

Johns M, Schmader T and Martens A. 2005. Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women's math performance. Psychological Science, 16, 175-179.

Klein O, Pohl S, and Ndagijimana C. 2007. The influence of intergroup comparisons on Africans' intelligence performance in a job selection context. The Journal of Psychology, 141, 453-467.

Lesko AC and Corpus JH. 2006. Discounting the difficult: How high math identified women respond to stereotype threat. Sex Roles, 54, 113-125.

McIntyre RB, Lord CG, Gresky DM, Ten Eyck LL, et al. 2005. A social impact trend in the effects of role models on alleviating women's mathematics stereotype threat. Current Research in Social Psychology, 10, 116-136.

Rydell RJ, Shiffrin RM, Boucher KL, Van Loo K, and Rydell MT. 2010. Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]

Steele CM and Aronson J. 1995. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

Stoet G and Geary DC. 2012. Can stereotype threat explain the sex gap in mathematics performance and achievement? Review of General Psychology 16(1): 93-102.

Stone J. 2002. Battling doubt by avoiding practice: The Effect of stereotype threat on self-handicapping in white athletes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1667-1678.

Content last modified 2/2014

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