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Has Stereotype Threat Ever Affected You?

It’s Not You, It’s Stereotype Threat

Why do people from different social groups (age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) underperform when it comes to certain tasks? Is it because they’re not as intelligent? Maybe not. It probably has more to do with stereotype threat than the individual’s intelligence. Stereotype threat is the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would confirm that stereotype. Simply being aware that you are being measured based on your social identity can subconsciously cause a self-handicap. The anxiety that comes with being judged stereotypically as a woman, Black, or even white male, can impede one’s performance.

stereotype-threatDr. Claude M. Steele, the social psychologist who developed the theory of stereotype threat, performed an experiment with two groups of Black and white college students, each taking a 30-minute test made up of questions from the GRE. “When one group was told that the test would measure their intellectual ability, Black students underperformed dramatically. But when another group was told the test could not measure intellectual ability, Blacks and whites performed at virtually the same level.” This is really interesting. He performed similar experiments with woman taking a math test that “measures” the differences between genders, white males taking a test that “measures” the differences between whites and Asians, etc., and the results were the same.

Another interesting result is that the more you care about what you are doing, the greater the effects of stereotype threats have on you. An intelligent Black college student who wants to do well may be more drastically affected by the awareness that he or she is being judged than someone who doesn’t care as much. It is because they have “more to lose”. The idea of being judged if you underperformed is upsetting. It takes cognitive resources away from you and undermines your performance.

asians-mathAs an Asian American, I grew up with to lot of stereotypes, but I’m not sure I have ever felt the effects of stereotype threats in my academic and professional career. I care about everything that I do, but I cannot recall a situation where stereotype affected my performance and what I do. Although it hasn’t happened to me, I can see it happening to others. Asian Americans are portrayed as a model minority, whom achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the population’s average. Although this is a positive stereotype, the pressure of high expectations can still threaten one’s intellectual performance. I think positive stereotypes can cause a stereotype threat, too.

If you ever notice that others (and yourself) fall into a stereotype threat situation, you should help reaffirm that the tests and challenges that they go through are not there to measure their performance based on their social identity, whether it’s age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. That’s not what challenges (in the classroom, workplace, life, etc.) are designed to test. They only provide a snapshot of your abilities at the moment. It doesn’t define who you are. You get better as you go. It may also help to look up to a role model or think about all of the challenges that you’ve overcame in the past. A stereotype is a generalization and oversimplification of an idea. They are not true for everyone.

You are your own individual.


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