May 11, 2010

How stereotypes affect us and what can be done about it

In Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us social psychologist Claude Steele writes about the work he and his colleagues have done on a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category (one's age, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, profession, nationality, political affiliation, mental health status, etc.)

Briefly, how stereotype threat works is as follows: you know your group identity and you know how society views it. You are aware that you are doing a task for which that view is relevant. You know, at some level, that you are in a predicament: your performance could confirm a bad view of your group and of yourself as a member of that group. You may not consciously feel anxious but your blood pressure rises and you begin to sweat. Your thinking changes. Your mind starts to race: you become vigilant to all things relevant to the threat and to what your chances of avoiding it are. You get some self-doubts and start to worry about how warranted the stereotype is. You start to constantly monitor how well you are doing. You try hard to suppress threatening thoughts about not doing well or about the negative consequences of possibly failing. While you are having all of these thoughts you are distracted from the task at hand and your concentration and working memory suffer.
Does it always happen? No. There is only one prerequisite for stereotype threat to happen: the person in question must care for the performance in question. That is what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance.

Can something be done about it? Yes. The hopeful news is that there are some rather small interventions which can help a lot. Experiments have shown that subtly removing or preventing stereotype threats can completely or largely eliminate performance gaps between stereotyped groups and non-stereotyped groups. Some examples of interventions which are often helpful to prevent the negative consequences of stereotype threat are: 1) make it clear in the way you give critical feedback that you use high standards and let the person know that you expect him or her to be able to eventually succeed, 2) improve the number of people from the social category in the setting so that a critical mass is reached, 3) make it clear that you value diversity, 4) foster intergroup conversations and frame these as a learning experience, 5) allow the stereotyped individuals to use self-affirmations, 6) help the stereotyped individuals to develop a narrative about the setting that explains their frustrations while projecting positive engagement and success in the setting.

Read more:
The experiments which are described in this post show how dramatic performance can be affected by stereotype threat: 5 Experiments that make you think. Three other posts which may be worth checking out are Stereotype vulnerability research: bridging social and ethnical performance gaps, Wise Feedback, and Women, math, and stereotype threat.

Update: tomorrow, there will be a more extensive review of this book by me on the website 


  1. Great post, as always.
    I was wondering how to call something that belongs to the "sterotype threat" family, I guess, but not quite since it is not related to performance: going to a restaurant in areas that are not open to inter-racial couples.
    In restaurants you might have good service and bad service: however I notice how in some areas where they are famous for being... well... not really open... when I go to a restaurant with my wife, who is african american, there is a whole dynamic going on.
    Sometimes they are extra nice. Sometimes they are rude. And you start thinking: is it because of me? Or because of the waiter? And then you start acting different - trying to be extra nice to the waiter / waitress...
    sweating more, as you say in the post... :)

  2. Hi Paolo,

    I don't know if this is what you mean but this is refered to in the book as an 'identity contingency'. (A contingency is a circumstance you have to deal with in order to get what you want in a situation).

    The 'extra nice' part is also interesting in your post. As research has shown, majority group members very often are very anxious of being viewed as stereotyping minorities.

    Two strategies are often used to prevent this from happening: 1) avoiding contact (not dealing with them so that they can not interpret your behavior as stereotyping them, 2) being 'extra nice', overcomplimenting.

    Both strategies eventually don't work well. See for instance my post 'Wise feedback' (


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