One of my college students tells me that she is an excellent driver. She is cool, collected, and confident—except when there are boys in the car.  “Then I get tense and make all kinds of stupid mistakes.”  Similarly, another of my students feels awkward in class.  He is one of two males in a large class of over 100 students.  “I don’t raise my hand anymore because the pressure is on, knowing that everyone’s looking at me like I speak for all white males.”

This kind of experience has long been familiar to “minorities.” This includes students of color in integrated college classrooms, women who pursue studies in engineering and math, and African-American athletes in sports like golf and tennis, where most of the players have been white.  This can begin when something makes you aware of expectations or stereotypes about you or people like you.  This raises the possibility that people will be likely to judge you negatively.  All you need do is say or do something vaguely consistent with the stereotype.  Claude Steele, my long-time academic mentor, named this experience “stereotype threat.”  (It’s also referred as “identity threat.”) 

Everyone can have this kind of experience because we all belong to groups that have certain images associated with them. For example, in the old days, women were discouraged from driving.  This means there was a time when the “woman driver” was a common cliché. In fact, there are still places today where people believe in this stereotype.  For my female student, the presence of males in the car prompted her to think about the stereotype, which made her worry and lose focus. Voila: stereotype confirmed.  This is how stereotype threat works.  The process needn’t be always conscious – though it certainly can be. 

Claude and I conducted a number of early experiments on this process, showing that we could temporarily raise or lower the intellectual performance of Stanford University undergraduates. We did so simply by getting them to think about an unflattering stereotype just prior to taking a difficult intelligence test. For example, in one experiment, just before taking a difficult verbal test, we had all of the students fill out a demographic survey.  But for half of these test takers, we included the question: what is your race?  For African American students, adding this question cued racial stereotypes, among which is the stereotype that people of color don’t do well on IQ tests. These students performed significantly worse than usual after being asked to report their race. For white students, the race question had no effect. 

In another study, we sought out the brightest math students on campus, which brought us to the engineering department. This time we lowered the math performance of a group of extremely accomplished white male engineering students.  How? Just before the test we explained to half of them that our purpose in measuring their math intelligence was to see why Asian students are so gifted in math. Another group took the same test but just thought we wanted to see how smart they were.  The group we threatened answered about 30% fewer of the math problems than usual.

Stereotypes increase our motivation to excel, in part to prove to ourselves and to others that the stereotype doesn’t fit.   But surplus motivation can often interfere with performance when focus is key.  Imagine you’re a basketball player standing at the free-throw line with the game on the line.  The opposing team calls a time out—to give you plenty of time to think about how big these shots are.  How helpful do you think it would be for your coach to pull you aside and say, “Everyone is watching you.  Everyone is depending on you.  Try not to think about what a poor free-throw shooter you are.”  Not helpful, right? 

Psychologists have shown over and again that for complex tasks—chess, brain surgery, IQ tests, and so on—extra motivation can be harmful. It’s better in such situations to do things that lower arousal and increase confidence.  We have found, for example, that just before an exam, if we remind students that the purpose of a test its not to measure them but to help them grow in math, we can boost the test scores of children taking a difficult test.  Similarly, test takers who write a paragraph about their anxiety about the test also score significantly better. The act of putting the anxious thoughts into words on paper seems to clear them from the mind. So there is less distraction. 

Finally, learning about how stereotypical expectations can affect our performance can itself be beneficial.  Clinical neuropsychologists (who administer IQ tests to students having difficulty in school) report that when they teach their clients about stereotype threat, the clients often start doing better on tests. Knowing that difficulty can result from social factors rather than Intelligence alone seems to reduce their anxiety.  

Putting all this together, students who suffer from test anxiety, like students who are frequently the victim of stereotypes, do not necessarily have to take intellectual threats laying down.  Educating ourselves about the social factors that influence performance can be liberating, and thus simply knowing that stereotype threat exists can sometimes disable it.

For Further Reading

Alter, A., Aronson, J., Darley, J. Rodriguez, C., & Ruble, D., N. (2010).  Rising to the threat: Reducing stereotype threat by reframing the threat as a challenge.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 166–171.

Aronson, J. (2002). Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education. San Diego: Academic Press.

T. Schmader & M. Inzlicht (Eds.) Stereotype threat: Theory, Process, and Application.  Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Spitzer, B. J. & Aronson, J. (2013).  Minding and mending the gap: social psychological interventions to reduce educational disparities.  British Journal of Educational Psychology. 85 1, 1-18.

Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi and other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York: W.W. Norton.


Joshua Aronson is a social psychologist who studies the factors that affect school performance, intelligence, and character development.  He directs the Mindful Education Lab at New York University.