Crystal is a highly regarded manager who had prepared extensively for a promotion meeting. She was eager to showcase her qualifications and step into a leadership role. However, something unexpected occurred as she entered the room and faced her supervisors. Crystal found herself struggling to convey her thoughts, her voice faltering.
Roger, a middle-aged man, loves video games and is a high scorer in his favorite game. One day, his husband interrupted him to ask where a certain medication was located. Before turning away, his husband commented, “Wow, we really are getting old. Can you believe it?” When Roger returned to his game, he was surprised and discouraged by how poorly he was playing.
Simone is an accomplished public speaker. One day, while waiting to go on stage, a venue employee remarked, “It’s great to see you, we don’t get many Black speakers here.” Simone gave one of the worst talks of her life.
Crystal’s, Roger’s, and Simone’s experiences are not isolated incidents but examples of a common but invisible phenomenon known as “Identity Threat,” more commonly referred to as “Stereotype Threat.”
When Crystal’s supervisor commented that she would be the first woman in the role, her conscious or unconscious awareness of the untrue stereotype that women are not good leaders seemed to cast a shadow over Crystal’s performance.
Roger was unconsciously affected by the untrue stereotype that elderly people are not skilled at video games.
Simone could have been affected by any number of stereotypes about Black people.
Stereotype threat is not internalized stigma; it is not imposter syndrome but separate. Hundreds of rigorous studies have documented this odd and largely invisible phenomenon. It’s not new—studies date back over the past decade.
“Everyone is vulnerable to stereotype threat, everyone has at least one group identity that is stereotyped.”
– Claude Steele
It (stereotype threat) is indiscriminate in cursing any group for which a negative stereotype applies, and it does so across a range of domains. What is so striking and debilitating about the phenomenon is how easily stereotype threat can be activated.”
– H. Rothgerber & K. Wolsiefer, 2014
Overlooking and failing to take action to prevent stereotype threat is very costly to individuals, organizations, and the people they serve. The purpose of this article is to introduce the reader to the concept and provide evidence-based strategies for fighting stereotype threat.
What Happens During Stereotype Threat?
When researchers used fMRI machines to examine how people’s brains respond to stereotype threat, they discovered that stereotype threat significantly alters how individuals process information.
For instance, consider a scenario where someone is solving a math problem under normal circumstances. During this task, the regions of the brain responsible for analytical thinking are most active. However, when stereotype threat is present, the brain’s focus shifts. The regions responsible for social and emotional processing become dominant, taking cognitive resources away from analytical thought. In essence, stereotype threat hijacks the parts of the brain responsible for analytical thinking, making it more challenging to solve the math problem and negatively affecting performance.
The Impact of Stereotype Threat
We do not need to be consciously aware that we are experiencing stereotype threat to suffer from its negative effects.
Confirming the Stereotype: Impact on Performance
Even implicitly or subconsciously, awareness of harmful societal stereotypes can impact performance across the spectrum of activity, including cognitive (e.g., math, problem-solving, chess), physical (e.g., athletics), and/or interpersonal (e.g., negotiating, social) tasks. For example, in the context of chess playing in which the opponent was not visible when women believed they were playing against men, they performed worse than when they were told (falsely) they were playing against another woman. In one study, White golfers did worse than Black golfers when told they were taking a test of “natural athletic ability,” which triggered a stereotype threat based on the assumption that White individuals are deemed not physically gifted. Black golfers did worse than White golfers when told the test required “sport strategic intelligence,” which triggered a stereotype threat based on the assumption that Black individuals are deemed less intellectually gifted than White individuals. In both cases, triggering stereotype threats caused the respective groups to inadvertently reinforce the stereotype. Neither group was aware of the cause of their performance level.
Anxiety and Physiologic Effects
The mental stress of managing stereotype threat results in anxiety that distracts from the present task. As with any threat, the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the brain responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response, is activated, creating a physiological response such as rising blood pressure, heart rate variability, and inflammation.
Dis-Identification and Disengagement
The experience of stereotype threat is unpleasant and can be very harmful to our self-concept. One common way to protect ourselves is to disengage with the careers, organizations, and professions in which we frequently experience stereotype threat. It is one cause of the decision not to enter or leave a course of study or career.
Potential Triggers for Stereotype Threat
Stereotype threat is triggered through various types of events and cues:
- Situations that draw attention to a group identity, such as gender, race, age, or other affiliations.
- Anything that cues awareness of negative stereotypes associated with a particular group, whether through comments, images, or context.
- Being in situations where one’s group identity is a minority.
- Receiving identity-threatening feedback or witnessing it being directed toward others in the same group.
- Exposure to media, literature, or conversations that perpetuate stereotypes.
- Environmental cues, such as the absence of anyone who shares our identity.
- Presence of stereotype-reinforcing imagery.
- Feeling observed or evaluated by others who have overtly or subtly indicated they hold stereotypical beliefs.
Protecting Yourself from Stereotype Threat
You can be affected by stereotype threat even without your conscious awareness. To protect yourself from stereotype threat and unlock your full potential, consider these steps:
- Identify the people and situations that are most likely to trigger stereotype threat for you. Remember that if you are triggered, you can bring yourself back.
- Think about a social group you belong to that doesn’t have any stereotypes relevant to the situation.
- Remind yourself that the anxiety and negative effects of stereotype threat are not related to your actual abilities.
- Focus on your unique qualities and skills to boost your confidence.
- Reflect on what drives and motivates you.
- Remember instances of past success to bolster your confidence.
- Remind yourself of your core values, especially those connected to the situation or task. If you have time, jot them down and why they are important to you.
Creating an Identity-Safe Environment
There are a few basic improvements you can implement to immediately reduce stereotype threat triggers and increase feelings of inclusion:
- Audit your environment to see if there are images or other attributes that may, however unintentionally, send a message about who belongs and who is of value. For example, if you have images of past leaders lining a hallway and they are (as is common) primarily or all White men, it may seem as if you are merely honoring your history. Unfortunately, that sends a powerful signal about what leaders look like – even if the impact is unconscious. Remove stereotype-reinforcing or triggering images, documents, artwork from the workplace and consider replacing them with counter-stereotypic imagery, artwork, documents, etc.
- When giving feedback, emphasize that all tasks and abilities are skills that can be learned. Help others see low performance as situational, malleable, or temporary. Focus on learning and growth.
- Teach about stereotype threat and remind people that when they feel anxious or temporarily unhappy with lower-than-expected performance, it could be stereotype threat and NOT related to their actual ability.
- Encourage self-affirmation by encouraging others to focus on their characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important.
- Openly state that no one group is better at a task than another.
- Acknowledge and remind others of their successes.
- Create a new sense of belonging by actively emphasizing common goals, and that all ideas and perspectives on how to achieve those goals are welcome. A focus on common goals reduces automatic bias. Feeling part of a group with common goals lowers threat and increases a sense of safety.
- To prevent triggering stereotype threat in others, use evidence-based strategies to interrupt unintended implicit biases. (We have a brief e-Learning course on overcoming unconscious bias that provides essential information.)
As individuals with multi-faceted identities, stereotype threat impacts each of us whether we’re aware of it or not. Though the negative effects of stereotyping may be playing out just under the surface, every organization has the ability to take proactive measures to enact meaningful change.
If you’re eager to delve deeper into stereotype threat and equip yourself and your organization with tools to overcome it, consider enrolling in our course, “Providing Identity-Safe Patient Care: Understanding and Preventing Stereotype Threat” for healthcare settings, or “Creating Identity Safe Teams by Understanding & Preventing Identity (Stereotype) Threat” for all other settings. The courses include downloadable job aides summarizing evidence-driven strategies. You can find these courses on our learning platform.
Don’t overlook the negative impact of stereotype threat in your organization.
References for this article can be found at https://www.diversityscience.org/stereotype-threat-identity-threat-references/