Stereotype Threat

The Consequences of being Negatively Stereotyped

One of the most widely studied and influential topics in social psychology over the past 15 years has been a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat refers to the tendency for people to perform poorly on scholastic exams and other cognitive tasks when they worry that their performance might confirm negative stereotypes about their group. Research on this phenomenon is important as it offers a more tractable explanation for longstanding group differences in performance outcomes experienced by minorities in academics and by women in science and math.

Our lab has contributed to this literature by specifying an integrated process model of stereotype threat that articulates the complex series of cognitive and affective processes that explains why being the target of negative stereotypes can undermine performance (see Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008, for a review). Building from that framework, we have published research suggesting that performance is impaired when people are perceived through the lens of negative stereotypes, because they become more vigilant to making errors, interpret their arousal as a sign of failure, and develop a more conscious sense of self (e.g., Schmader, Forbes, Zhang, & Mendes, 2009; Schmader, Croft, & Whitehead, 2014). As a result, their ability to focus attention on a task is compromised (Mrazek et al., 2011; Schmader & Johns, 2003), all processes that can undermine complex cognitive problem-solving.

The promise of research identifying the mechanisms that underlie stereotype threat is that a deep understanding of the subtle processes that create performance differences between groups can inform strategies for neutralizing these effects. For example, we have shown that performance can be improved when test-takers are instructed to reappraise their anxiety or other distracting thoughts in a more benign way (e.g., Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010; Schuster, Martiny, & Schmader, 2015) or are taught that stereotype threat can be a source of anxiety (Johns, Schmader, & Martens, 2005). Another way to combat stereotype threat is to retrain a more positive automatic association of women with math or otherwise unlink one’s sense of self from a test (e.g., Forbes & Schmader, 2010; Zhang, Schmader, & Hall, 2013).

In our more recent research, we have moved toward examining stereotype threat as it is experienced in more naturalistic settings. We have documented, that for women working in science and engineering, conversations with male colleagues can cue a sense of exclusion that predicts daily experiences of stereotype threat, burnout, and disengagement (Hall, Schmader, & Croft, 2015; Holleran, Whitehead, Schmader, & Mehl, 2011). This research is also beginning to reveal that women who work for organizations that have more gender inclusive policies experience more positive working conversations with their male colleagues, are less aware of their gender on a daily basis, and feel less burned out at the of the workday. In the coming years, we plan to extend this research on the naturalistic experience of social identity threat in educational and workplace settings through longitudinal studies that include interventions designed to reduce women’s experience of stereotype threat by creating more identity safe environments, changing implicit biases, and/or providing effective strategies for coping with threat.

For further reading:

Hall, W., Schmader, T., & Croft, E. (Online First, Feb 24, 2015). Engineering exchanges: Women’s daily experience of social identity threat in engineering cue burnout. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Schmader, T., & Hall, W. (2014). Stereotype threat in school and work: Putting science into practice. Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 30-37. doi:10.1177/2372732214548861

Inzlicht, M., & Schmader, T. (Eds.) (2012). Stereotype threat: Theory, Process, and Application. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Holleran, S., Whitehead, J., Schmader, T., & Mehl, M. (2011). Talking shop and shooting the breeze: Predicting women’s job disengagement from workplace conversations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 65-71.

Forbes, C.E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Retraining implicit attitudes and stereotypes to distinguish motivation from performance in a stereotype threatening domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 740-754.

Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review, 115, 336-356.