Stereotype Threat (Steele, Aronson)

Summary: Stereotype threat is a phenomenon that occurs when people are at risk for living up to a negative stereotype about their group. For example, a woman may fail to reach her career goal of being a scientist because of how she changes her behavior in response to perceptions about her own gender.

Originators: Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson

Keywords: stereotypes, vulnerability, self-defeating behavior, performance, gender, race, intelligence

Stereotype threat is a term that was created by social scientists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. They completed an important early study in 1995 which defined stereotype threat as “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.”[i]

In this study, Steele and Aronson observed the performance of Black and White students on academic tests. Steele and Aronson created the study in response to a negative stereotype about Black students which pervades culture – Black students are portrayed as less intelligent and less competent than White students. Because of this stereotype, Steele and Aronson wondered if Black students would “protectively dis-identify with achievement in school and related intellectual domains.” This desire to disengage from intellectual pursuits could possible lead Black students to live up to their negative stereotype.

The results of the study confirmed the researcher’s suspicion. When test instructors emphasized the role of race before the test, researchers found that Black students performed worse than White students. When instructors did not emphasize race, Black and White students performed equally well.

In essence, stereotype threat occurs when people fear that they will live up to a negative stereotype about their group. In response to their fear, they participate in disengaging and self-defeating behaviors that ironically cause them to live up to the feared stereotype.

Stereotype Threat Impacts Peoples’ Behavior

Stereotype threat has been shown to impact peoples’ behavior in the following ways.[ii]

  • Reduced effort – People who fear they might live up to a stereotype sometimes reduce their effort so they can have an excuse if they fall into that stereotype. For example, people may not prepare for a test so they have an excuse when they do poorly.
  • Disengaging – People who are stereotypically not good at something (such as woman in mathematics) will often disengage from that field or area.
  • Changing aspirations and career goals – Some people go as far as to change their life aspirations and career goals in response to stereotype threat.

How to Reduce Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat has been studied extensively, with a heavy emphasis on how to reduce this phenomenon in various populations. Research shows that the following strategies can be effective. Many of these are practical strategies that can be carried out in classrooms and other settings.

  • Providing role models. People who observe role models from their group engaging in certain fields and activities are more likely to think they can do the same thing. One study showed that woman who read about other woman who had succeeded in fields of architecture, law, medicine, and intervention performed better on a mathematics test than those who didn’t.[iii]
  • Encouraging self-affirmation – One study showed that having African students engage in a self-affirming journal exercise before the start of a semester closed the racial achievement gap by 40%.[iv]
  • Emphasizing motivation and effort – African American students who were taught that intelligence is “a malleable rather than fixed capacity” that can be increased through motivation and effort received better grades than those who were not taught this.[v]

Although stereotype threat is a significant concern for many vulnerable groups of people, research consistently shows that the effects of stereotype threat can be reduced through following strategies such as these.[v]

Over three hundred studies have investigated stereotype threat in a wide variety of areas.[vi]


[i] Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

[ii] Stroessner, S. & Good, C. (n.d.) Stereotype threat: An overview. Retrieved from

[iii] McIntyre, R. B., Paulson, R., & Lord, C. (2003). Alleviating women’s mathematics stereotype threat through salience of group achievements. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 83-90.

[iv] Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N. & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307-1310.

[v] 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 Psychology, 38, 113-125.

[vi] Stroessner, Steve; Good, Catherine. “Stereotype Threat: An Overview”. Reducing Stereotype Retrieved 6 March 2011.