What is Stereotype Threat?
Stereotype threat affects members of any group about whom there exists some negative stereotype. The effect is variable across different groups and situations. Different groups experience different degrees of threat depending on the content of the stereotype and the situation. Also, stereotype threat has the potential to affect members of any group, if a situation makes them believe they will be viewed in light of a negative stereotype.
A stereotype must be relevant to one's self for it to be threatening; in other words, one must care about the domain or behavior that the stereotype describes. But one need not believe in the stereotype for it to be threatening. This makes stereotype threat different than "self-fullfilling prophesy" where one's negative beliefs about oneself can sabotage performance. But trying to disprove a stereotype, by outperforming for example, has detrimental effects and paradoxically leads to a decrease in performance.
One of the most insidious aspects of stereotype threat is that better students are more likely to be affected. As Steele (1999) said:
"The most achievement oriented students, who were also the most skilled, motivated, and confident, were the most impaired by stereotype threat." (Steele, 1999, p.48).
They hypothesize that these students have more of their self-worth tied up with school and thus try harder to prove the stereotype wrong. The effect is that the threat results in distraction, self-consciousness, evaluation apprehension, test anxiety, and loss of motivation.
Note that these effects are only visible for tests that are challenging. Easy assignments do not show a difference in scoring even when students are given prompts to elicit the threat.
Given all of this, a natural question would be whether or not students will respond to the opposite kind of prompting. It turns out that they do. This is called "Stereotype Lift." If students are told that the group to which they belong does particularly well on something, then they tend to do better that might otherwise be expected. Note, however, that this only works when the activated stereotype actually exists and the participants buy into it. The results are also not as strong as with Stereotype Threat, but it is statistically significant.