Author: Arif Mahmud, Project Officer – University of Portsmouth

Stereotypes can impact students in more ways than we may anticipate. If we notice it or not, it can happen to anyone.

There is evidence that the fear of living up to a certain stereotype can affect the way we act or perform without us even knowing. It’s a commonly researched concept in psychology known as “stereotype threat,” and it refers to the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group to which you belong or the risk of not confirming to a positive stereotype about a group which you belong.

Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson first used this term in their study of Black College students’ performance on standardized tests when their race was and was not emphasized before the test. They defined stereotype threat as:

A social-psychological predicament that can arise from widely-known negative stereotypes about one’s group. …The existence of such a stereotype means that anything one does or any of one’s features that conform to it make the stereotype more plausible as a self-characterization in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in one’s own eyes. … [We] argue that it is experienced, essentially, as a self-evaluative threat. …When the allegations of the stereotype are importantly negative, this predicament may be self-threatening enough to have disruptive effects of its own

(Steele & Aronson, 1995).

In their study, Steel and Aronson (1995) found that Black college students performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behaviour might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.

Research has shown that stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance. Everyone belongs to at least one group that is characterized by some sort ofstereotype. When one views oneself in terms of a salient group membership (e.g., “I am a woman. Women are not expected to be good at maths.” and “This is a difficult maths test.”), performance can be undermined because of concerns about possibly confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group.

Pronin et al., (2004) highlight the possible implications of stereotype threat in their article on women’s bifurcation of feminine identity as a response to threatening stereotypes in the domain of mathematics:

To focus our immediate concern with math identification and gender, consider the plight of a young woman (whom we’ll call Carol) who wins admission to an elite college on the basis of the math and quantitative science grades she achieved in high school, the recommendations of her teachers, and her performance on standardized tests. Once in college, she inevitably experiences the same pressures faced by all prospective math majors who encounter more rigorous courses and stiffer competition than they had faced in high school.

However, Carol faces additional burdens. She becomes increasingly aware that characteristics commonly associated with her gender (ranging from concern with hair and makeup to willingness to consider future career interruptions in order to have children) make her prospects as a successful math major and future mathematician suspect to her classmates and to her professors. She soon recognizes that the interest she evidences in her personal appearance and her frankness in acknowledging the challenges of balancing family and career concerns are seen as “counter-diagnostic” with respect to success in math-related fields.

When Carol walks into the math classroom, or into her math professor’s office hours, or chats with her math study group, she feels heightened anxiety about the prospect of negative judgment due to these aspects of her female identity. To reduce this discomfort and anxiety, she stops wearing makeup—at least on days when she has to meet with her professor or is likely to be scrutinized by her male peers. When “hanging out” and chatting with friends who belong to her math study group, she avoids the topic of having children. However, even at these moments, she continues to value her overall identity as a woman, and to see herself as the possessor of valued but stereotypically feminine characteristics (such as social sensitivity) that she neither sees nor expects her math peers to see as counter-diagnostic of math success. Moreover, outside of such settings, when her math ability is less under scrutiny and she is less subject to stereotype threat, she may identify freely with all of the feminine traits that she values, and even with ones that she does not particularly value but nevertheless acknowledges as an aspect of herself.

Many studies have found that stereotype threat can impact our performance in many different situations including memory tests (Schamder & Johns, 2003), intelligence tests (Croziet et al., 2004) and even golf putting (Grimm et al., 2016). Although stereotype threat effects appear to be robust, the specific mechanisms by which the stereotype threat harms performance is still not entirely clear. This ambiguity likely reflects that fact that stereotype threat probably produces several different consequences, each of which can contribute to decreased performance (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002). Steele and Aronson (1995), for example, speculated that distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over-effort might all play a role.

This post has touched upon the notion that stereotype threat is real and a concern.  What we hope to do in this Changing Mindsets project is provide guidance to staff and students on classroom strategies that proactively address stereotype threat utilising evidence based research conducted in the last 20 years.

Here’s a small list of ways that research suggests can help students persevere in spite of stereotype threat:

  • Encourage a growth mindset (Aronson et al., 2002)
  • Create an identity safe classroom (Steele & Cohen-Vargas, 2014)
  • Forewarning students about stereotype threat (Aronson & Williams. 2004; Johns & Schmader, 2004)
  • Give the right kind of feedback (Cohen et al., 1999)
  • Provide role models that challenge negative stereotypes (Marx & Roman, 2002)
  • Discuss stereotype threat with students (Johns et al., 2005)

Learn more about stereotype threat and its antidote “identity safety” in this interview with Dr. Steele.


Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology38(2), 113-125.

Aronson, J., & Williams, J. (2004). Stereotype threat: Forewarned is forearmed. Unpublished manuscript, New York University, New York.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin25(10), 1302-1318.

Croizet, J., Després, G., Gauzins, M., Huguet, P., Leyens, J. (2004). Stereotype threat undermines intellectual performance by triggering a disruptive mental load. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 721-731.

Grimm, L. R., Lewis, B., Maddox, W. T., Markman, A. B. (2016). Stereotype fit effects for golf putting nonexperts. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5, 39-51.

Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science16(3), 175-179.

Johns, M., & Schmader, T. (2004). Knowing is half the battle. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Austin, Texas

Marx, D. M., & Roman, J. S. (2002). Female role models: Protecting women’s math test performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin28(9), 1183-1193.

Pronin, E., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. (2004). Identity bifurcation in response to stereotype threat: Women and mathematics. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology40(2), 152-168.

Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 440-452.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology69(5), 797.

Steele, Dorothy, Cohn-Vargas, Becki. Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. 14 April 2014. Online video clip. Accessed on 20 Mar 2015 <>

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

Understanding Stereotype Threat

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