Stereotype Threat

The High Cost of Living with Stereotypes

Stereotype threat is the term Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995) gave to the “predicament” we each face at some point, attempting to do well at a task, when poor performance could confirm a negative stereotype about people like us. For example, women taking difficult math tests may be impaired by (unconscious) anxiety about defying or reinforcing assumptions that women aren’t good at math. The phenomenon triggers elevated blood pressure, and compromises both working memory and cognitive processing. More than 300 studies have replicated the original findings, and established that stereotype threat can afflict any of us, from white men taking tests said to measure social sensitivity, to minority students taking tests alleged to measure verbal ability. The conditions are simple: we only need to care about performing well and be aware of an expectation that we probably won’t. Even a subtle cue—like ticking a box to indicate race or gender–can trigger stereotype threat, and the burden of representing an entire class of people causes stress and distraction that consistently impair performance. As Steele (2010) explains, “a mind trying to defeat a stereotype leaves little mental capacity free for anything else we’re doing.”

One alarming implication of this research is that our typical measurements of student achievement may be neither accurate nor just. Stricker and Ward (2004) found that women taking the AP calculus exam scored a standard deviation higher when the requirement to identify gender was moved from the beginning to the end of the exam. Around 1,500 more students each year might start college with AP credit if they solved the math problems before they saw the demographic questions. Researchers administering the SAT and GRE verbal sections to African-American students observed similar effects when they relocated the ethnicity questions to the end of the exam, so that students were not “primed” for underperformance by the implicit suggestion that race might be significant to their scores. The national impact of stereotype threat on college admissions and career paths, and the consequent impact on lives, is immeasurable.

Although early studies captured the effects of stereotype threat in test performance, the conditions can be chronic. It should be no surprise that ongoing stereotype threat conditions inhibit learning. Students may avoid or shift away from majors where the threat is higher; but the consequences of chronic stress transcend even education and career paths, contributing to health disparities.

Stereotype threat is part of the daily educational experience of students across the world, and our own classrooms can inadvertently foster threatening conditions, if we’re not aware of what causes them. The good news is that there’s a lot we can do to mitigate the threat, and allow our students to perform, and learn, to the best of their abilities. Stay tuned for next week’s message on strategies for reducing stereotype threat.


FSU Libraries are hosting an Open Education Symposium on March 8. It’s an exciting opportunity to learn about open-access resources, and how they can free you from textbooks, allowing you to create more learner-centered courses.

There’s also a survey about textbooks, affordability, and OER. You can respond here: