SAGE Musings: Stereotype Threat

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published May 31, 2016

Today's SAGE musings is about stereotype threat. When I first heard about this phenomenon, I found it rather shocking... and yet, I saw it in my classes.

It's a very simple phenomenon: when students are reminded of stereotypical beliefs about how their race/ethnicity/gender affects their abilities just prior to completing a task, it affects their performance. Dramatically. And the reminder can be almost unnoticeable. For example, identifying oneself as belonging to a particular group (filling out a demographic form prior to taking the SAT, for example), reminds the test-taker that they belong to that group. Identifying oneself as female before taking a test of spatial thinking skills will, on average, lower the test-taker's score on the test. This is why psychologists now put demographic surveys *after* any skills tests, in their research studies.

If you have 8 minutes, listen to this podcast. The relevant section begins at 11:50, with an interview of Claude Steele:

What's fascinating to me about this interview is how the researchers were able to eliminate the performance differences -- or even *reverse* them -- by making very minor changes to the environment and the words used to introduce the task.

To learn more, see

Or dig a bit deeper, with the short article (Walton, 2009), describing a meta-analysis of studies of nearly 19,000 students. I remember a female student citing research to me about women having weaker math skills than men. She hadn't considered the effects of individual differences and effort. I'm curious to know how many of you have observed your students struggling against or seeming to given in to stereotypes about their abilities. Do you see stereotypes affecting your students' self-images or self-confidence? Do you have strategies for addressing those situations, preemptively or in the moment?

How can we help our students see past the stereotypes?


Walton, Gregory M. and Steven J. Spencer, 2009. Latent Ability: Grades and Test Scores Systematically Underestimate the Intellectual Ability of Negatively Stereotyped Students. Psychological Science, v. 20, n. 9, pp. 1132-1139.

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