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Stereotype and social identity threat

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Stereotype threat refers to situations in which individuals feel they might be judged negatively because of a stereotype. Women, for example, might experience stereotype threat when they complete a mathematics task--a task that some people assume are completed more effectively by men. Stereotype threat has been shown, in many contexts, to compromise performance, evoke anxiety, and deplete effort (e.g., Steele, 1997;; Steele & Aronson, 1995;; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002;; for a review, see also Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008).

To illustrate, Steele and Aronson (1995) argued, and then demonstrated, that stereotype threat often compromises the performance of African American students in intellectual domains. These students are concerned about the stereotype that African American people do not perform as well on intellectual tasks. Consistent with this assertion, when African American students were more aware of this stereotype, their performance on academic tasks diminished.

Social identity threat represents instances in which individuals feel the collectives to which they belong have been evaluated negatively. In short, as social identity theory assumes (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), individuals strive to maintain a positive perception of their groups and collectives. If these positive perceptions are challenged, individuals experience a sense of threat, manifesting as negative emotions or reinforcing behaviors that align with group norms (see Walton & Cohen, 2007).

Some scholars argue that stereotype threat is a subset of social identity threat. In particular, stereotype threat evokes concerns of individuals about themselves. In contrast, social identity threat also evokes concerns in individuals about their perceptions of their groups and collectives (Derks, Inzlicht, & Kang, 2008).

Consequences of stereotype and social identity threat


Typically, stereotype threat increases the likelihood that men and women will not perform well on tasks in which they are often assumed to be deficient. If women are reminded of the stereotype that females are deficient in mathematics, their performance on mathematics tasks diminishes (e.g., Krendl, Richeson, Kelley, & Heatherton, 2008). If men are reminded of the stereotype that males are deficient in verbal skills, their performance on activities that demand these skills deteriorates as well (Ford, Ferguson, Brooks, & Hagadone, 2004;; for mechanisms, see Seibt & Forster, 2004).

Although often studied in the context of gender stereotypes, this form of threat has been examined in many other domains as well. When White participants are reminded of the stereotype that Black individuals are superior in athletic activities, their performance on these tasks diminishes (e.g. Beilock, Jellison, Rydell, McConnell, & Carr, 2006;; Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999).

Specificity of cognitive deficits

Many studies have shown that stereotype threats can impede performance on various tasks. For example, when the stereotype that females do not perform well on mathematics is highlighted, the performance of women on mathematical tasks actually declines. Yet, the precise cognitive processes that underpin this decline have not been clarified definitively. Rydell, Van Loo, and Boucher (2014) conducted a study that was intended to override this shortfall.

Specifically, Rydell, Van Loo, and Boucher (2014) examined the extent to which this stereotype threat compromised the three basic executive functions, as defined by Miyake and colleagues (2000):

Participants completed tasks that assess these three functions as well as a mathematics test, comprising arithmetic equations. Before completing these tasks, to prime a stereotype threat, some of the women were instructed the research was conducted to examine why women do not perform as well as men in mathematics. The stereotype threat did indeed compromise performance on the mathematics task. Although this threat did impede inhibition, only updating mediated the association between stereotype threat and mathematics performance. In a subsequent study, impaired inhibition mediated the association between stereotype threat and diminished risk taking.

Potentially, stereotype threat might evoke worries, and these worries could impede the capacity of women to update the contents of working memory. This updating is vital to completing a series of mathematics equations& if updating is impaired, previous numbers and answers could impede attempts to subsequent questions. Stereotypes threat could also compromise inhibition& when aroused, individuals depend on dominant tendencies. This inhibition could then impede risk taking.


Stereotype threats can also impede learning and not merely performance. In a set of studies, conducted by Rydell, Rydell, and Boucher (2010), some women were exposed to the stereotype that females are deficient in mathematics. Other women were not exposed to this stereotype. If women were exposed to the stereotype that females are deficient in mathematics, their capacity to learn mathematical rules deteriorated.


Stereotype threat has been shown to increase the likelihood of mental exhaustion and burnout (Hall, Schmader, & Croft, 2015). In particular, in one study, when female engineers did not feel accepted or respected by their male counterparts, they were more likely to experience feelings of social identity threat, as epitomized by agreement with items like "Today at work, I was concerned that, because of my gender, my actions influenced the way other people interacted with me". These feelings were positively associated with exhaustion and burnout.

Presumably, in response to social identity threats, individuals feel the need to demonstrate their capabilities. Because of this motivation, they strive to impress someone else, deviating from their natural tendencies or personal intuitions. Therefore, mental energy is depleted, increasing the likelihood of burnout.

Social identity

In response to these stereotype or social identity threats, some individuals develop an alternative social identity, joining another club or organization, for example (Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2009). In contrast, other individuals will instead attempt to reinforce this identity. If, for example, they discover their group is not as competent as assumed, they might attempt to derogate rivals, ultimately to underscore the superiority of their own collective (Branscombe & Wann, 1994).

Which of these two responses individuals are most likely to consider may, at least partly, depend on the extent to which they are committed to this group or identity (Nadler, Harpaz-Gorodeisky, & Ben-David, 2009). That is, if committed to this group, they are more inclined to reinforce this identity rather than construct an alternative identity.

Suppression of prejudice

When stereotype threat is evoked, individuals attempt to regulate their emotions. They attempt to curb their anxiety. To achieve this goal, they often attempt to suppress or disregard the negative stereotypes of their group or collective

To demonstrate, in one study, conducted by Logel, Walton, Spencer, Iserman, von Hippel, and Bell (2009), half of the women interacted with men who demonstrated sexist behavior. Specifically, these men, who were actually confederates rather than genuine participants, sat close to the females, maintained a confident facial expression, and gazed at these women often, with their knees wide apart. The other women interacted with men who did not demonstrate this sexist behavior.

Interestingly, interactions with sexist men diminished the concern of women about negative gender stereotypes. That is, these women completed a lexical decision task, in which a series of letter strings appeared. They had to press one button if the string was a legitimate word and another button if string was not a word. After interacting with a sexist man, the women did not recognize words that relate to female stereotypes, such as intuitive, weak, emotional, or irrational, as rapidly as they recognized other words.

Factors that determine whether stereotypes are salient

Many procedures are used to increase the salience of these stereotypes. Sometimes, individuals are merely instructed to specify the group to which belong. For example, African American students might be told to specify their race. This instruction has been shown to evoke stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

In other studies, participants are informed the task might be diagnostic of differences across groups. To illustrate, in one study, some women were told a maths test could uncover gender differences in ability. This allusion to gender differences was sufficient to impair the performance of women on maths tasks (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn , 1999).

Sexist behavior

As Logel, Walton, Spencer, Iserman, von Hippel, and Bell (2009) demonstrated, when women interact with men who appear sexist, stereotype threat is amplified. In some of these studies, half of the women interacted with men who demonstrated sexist behavior. In particular, these men, who were actually confederates rather than genuine participants, sat close to the females, maintained a confident facial expression, and gazed at these women often, with their knees wide apart. The other women interacted with men who did not demonstrate this sexist behavior.

Subsequently, these participants completed a test of their engineering or English skills. Women who interacted with sexist, rather than other, men did not perform as well on the engineering test--a domain in which women are stereotyped negatively. However, women who interacted with sexist men nevertheless performed well on an English test--a domain in which women are stereotyped positively.

Even subtle behaviors have been shown to evoke stereotype threat. Female individuals, for example, can experience this sense of threat even in response to the mere suggestion that someone might be sexist, even if they do not show sexist behavior (Adams, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, & Steele, 2005).

Blurring the intergroup boundaries

As Rosenthal and Crisp (2006) highlight, when the similarities between groups are amplified, and the differences are obscured, stereotype threat may diminish. For example, after people consider the similarities between males and females, the stereotype that females are not proficient in mathematics is not as likely to affect performance.

For example, in one study, some participants, all of whom were female, were asked to identify a few similarities between males and females. That is, these individuals directed their attention to the characteristics that both genders shared. In the control condition, participants either identified the differences between males and females or completed neither of these two exercises. Next, all participants completed a mathematics test.

Usually, when their sex is salient, female participants are not as likely to perform well on mathematics tests. However, if these individuals had reflected upon the similarities between males and females, this stereotype threat diminished: their mathematics performance was preserved. Presumably, according to self-categorization theory, after contemplating the characteristics that both sexes share, sex may no longer be utilized as a cue to differentiate people or define the self, reducing stereotype threat.

Factors that moderate the consequences of stereotype threat

Stereotype threat does not always elicit a sequence of reactions. To illustrate, after individuals reflect on their most important value, called self affirmation, the effects of stereotype threat often diminish (see Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). Similarly, as Ford, Ferguson, Brooks, and Hagadone (2004) showed, if individuals can conceptualize stressful events as amusing and humorous, the effects of this threat on performance diminishes.

Information about the validity of stereotypes

If individuals are informed the stereotype is misguided, the effects of stereotype threat diminishes. To illustrate, females might be aware of the stereotype that men outperform women on mathematical and arithmetic tasks. When they complete these tasks, therefore, they tend to experience anxiety. Nevertheless, if these females are informed this stereotype is not accurate but unfortunately provokes anxiety in many women, they can ascribe limitations in their performance to this stereotype and not to their own deficiencies. Their anxiety, therefore, tends to diminish and their performance typically improves, as validated by Johns, Schmader, and Martens (2005).

Group discussion about stereotypes

Negative stereotypes, if affirmed in a group setting, are especially likely to elicit a sense of threat. For example, in one study, conducted by Smith and Postmes (2011), some female participants were asked to consider why men are better than women at maths. Other female participants were asked to consider why men are not better than women at maths These individuals contemplated these issues either alone or in a team discussion. Then, they completed maths questions.

If females considered why men are better?-rather than not better?-than women at maths, they did not perform as well on a subsequent maths task: That is, they showed the hallmarks of stereotype threat. Furthermore, if the female participants discussed this topic in the context of a group, rather than alone, this pattern of findings was more pronounced. Presumably, these group discussions uncover more insights, potentially reinforcing the stereotypes.

Identification with the group

If individuals do not identify closely with a specific collective, negative stereotypes are not as likely to affect performance. To illustrate, after female participants are exposed to negative stereotypes about the mathematical ability of women, their maths performance usually deteriorates. Nevertheless, if they do not identify strongly with their gender--if their gender is not an important part of their identity--this effect of stereotypes diminishes (Schmader, 2002).

Mechanisms that underpin the consequences of stereotype and social identity threat

Depletion of working memory and effort

After individuals experience stereotype or social identity threat, their capacity to utilize working memory (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008) and maintain effort diminishes (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). That is, in response to these forms of threat, individuals first experience an involuntary negative state. That is, stereotype threat and social identity threat evoke negative emotions, such as anxiety or anger. To illustrate, these negative stereotypes might contradict the positive perceptions that individuals form about themselves (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008). This dissonance evokes a sequence of worries and emotions.

Next, individuals attempt to regulate this state. For example, in the context of stereotype threat, individuals might monitor their performance more vigilantly, to circumvent errors. In addition, individuals might attempt to regulate negative emotions. That is, they might attempt to orient their attention to pleasant memories, evoking positive feelings instead. Finally, they might strive to curb unfavorable thoughts. They might, for example, divert their attention from the negative stereotypes of their collective to the positive achievements (Logel, Walton, Spencer, Iserman, von Hippel, & Bell, 2009).

These conscious responses to negative emotions elicit two problems. First, these responses consume working memory. This resource is not available for other concurrent tasks (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008). Second, these responses deplete resources from a limited supply of mental energy, called ego depletion, compromising the capacity of these individuals to maintain discipline and concentration later as well (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010).

Many studies have confirmed the effects of stereotype threat on working memory. For example, in a study conducted by Beilock, Rydell, and McConnell (2007), stereotype threat was shown to elicit intrusive thoughts Furthermore, stereotype threat compromised tasks that specifically assess working memory, especially the phonological loop.

Rydell, McConnell, and Beilock (2009) also showed that stereotype threat may compromise working memory. To gauge working memory, on each trial, participants needed to alternate between two tasks. On one task, they needed to count, and report, the number of vowels in a sentence. On the other task, they needed to remember a work that appeared. After several trials, they were then asked to recall all the words they had remembered, regarded as a measure of working memory. If female students had been exposed to negative stereotypes about their gender, and performed a maths task, working memory capacity declined.

Inzlicht and Kang (2010) conducted a series of studies to substantiate the effect of stereotypes on subsequent self control. In one study, some women felt they might be evaluated harshly when completing a maths test. Later, these participants were more likely to react aggressively to a provocation. They could not restrain their emotions as effectively (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). Similarly, after this form of stereotype threat, women could not refrain from unhealthy food as effectively (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). In addition, after individuals were asked to remember a time in which they were the target of prejudice--a form of social identity threat--their performance on a subsequent decision task deteriorated.

Arousal and anxiety

In some instances, in response to stereotype or social identity threat, individuals might not be able to regulate their emotions effectively. That is, the anxiety, stress, and other states might persist. These negative emotions themselves might, in some instances, compromise performance (see Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001;; O'Brien & Crandall, 2003;; Scheepers & Ellemers, 2005). Consistent with this premise, stereotype threat does evoke physiological indices of arousal (e.g., Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001).

Sexism is more likely than other threats to increase the production of cortisol, a hormone that corresponds to feelings of threat. For example, in one study, conducted by Townsend, Major, Gangi, and Mendes (2011), female participants were rejected or excluded by a male and, therefore, not able to participate in some other task. In some instances, a male was chosen instead of these female participants, and the justification was obviously sexist. In other instances, a female was chosen instead of these female participants, and the justification alluded to merit or capability instead. If exposed to sexism, rather than rejected on other grounds, levels of cortisol were especially pronounced. Even women who interacted with a sexist male demonstrated elevated levels of cortisol. This study implies that stereotype threat might manifest as sexism and increase levels of cortisol, a biophysical correlate of threat and anxiety.

Regulatory focus

According to Seibt and Forster (2004), stereotype threat might evoke a prevention focus (see regulatory focus theory). In particular, when individuals become aware of the negative stereotypes of their groups or collectives, there are more cognizant of the errors they could commit or the shortcomings they might demonstrate. Their primary motivation is to prevent these errors, rather than achieve progress, called a prevention focus.

This prevention focus could underpin some of the consequences of stereotype threat. Because of this need to prevent errors, individuals are not as inclined to explore creative alternatives, for example.

Seibt and Forster (2004) accumulated some evidence of this position. Specifically, in this study, some male participants were informed that verbal skills are better in women than men, eliciting stereotype threat. Their task was to identify the odd word in sets of 5 items, such as pear, fig, kiwi, apple, and carrot. When stereotype threat was induced in the men, these males committed fewer errors. That is, they were more cautious, striving to conceal their shortcomings. Nevertheless, they also proceeded more slowly as well.

Grimm, Markman, Maddox, and Baldwin (2009) also argued that stereotype threat could evoke a prevention focus. Therefore, if the task involves the pursuit of potential rewards and gains, indicative of a promotion focus, stereotype threat should provoke a sense of misfit. Misfit tends to diminish the perceived importance of this task, compromising engagement. Conversely, if the tasks involve the prevention of potential losses and complications, indicative of a prevention focus, stereotype threat could elicit a sense of fit. This sense of fit could actually enhance engagement and performance (for preliminary evidence, see Grimm, Markman, Maddox, & Baldwin, 2009).

Neurological mechanisms that underpin stereotype threat

Using fMRI, Krendl, Richeson, Kelley, and Heatherton (2008) examined the neural regions that underpin stereotype threat. In this study, women completed a series of mathematics tasks. Midway through this task, some of these participants were reminded of the stereotype that women are not as proficient as men in mathematics, compromising their performance.

If the participants had not been exposed to the reminder, the inferior prefrontal cortex, left inferior parietal cortex, and bilateral angular gyrus were appreciably activated. These regions are often associated with learning and performance in mathematics. However, women who had been exposed to this stereotype threat did not exhibit elevated levels of activation in this region. Instead, the ventral anterior cingulate cortex was activated, reflecting sensitivity to dissonance and regulation of emotions. This finding aligns to the proposition that stereotype threat diverts attention from constructive operations to the regulation of emotions and monitoring of performance (for comparable findings, see Wraga, Helt, Jacobs, & Sullivan, 2007).

Neurological mechanisms that underpin in-group bias

Derks and Inzlicht (2008), as cited in Derks, Inzlicht, and Kang (2008), examined the neural underpinnings to in-group bias. Specifically, when the ethnicity or constituency is undermined, individuals often perceive their group more favorably, as a defense mechanism. Derks and Inzlicht (2008) investigated event related potentials to assess this bias.

In this study, pictures of negative or unfavorable contexts were presented. Occasionally, a female or male face also appeared. Furthermore, some of the female participants were exposed to negative stereotypes about their gender. Other female participants were exposed to positive stereotypes about their gender.

If the female participants had been exposed to negative stereotypes about their gender, the late positive potential-?a component of the evoke response potential that peaks 350 to 900 ms after the stimulus--generated a particularly high amplitude in response to the male faces compared to the female faces. This amplitude indicates the stimulus was perceived as particular conspicuous, diverging appreciably from the surroundings. This observation reveals that, within a negative setting, the male faces were more conspicuous than were the female faces. Accordingly, the male faces must have been perceived positively, and the female faces must have been perceived negatively.

Accordingly, when individuals are exposed to a stereotype threat, they perceive their own constituency negatively, at least at some level. Nevertheless, perhaps as a defensive response, they tend to report more positive evaluations of their group--an observation that was also confirmed in this study as well (Derks & Inzlicht, 2008, cited in Derks, Inzlicht, & Kang, 2008).

Classes of threat

Examples of social identity threat

When some event compromises the beliefs and assumptions that individuals have formed about the qualities and norms of their collectives, communities, or groups, they experience a sense of social identity threat. Three distinct classes of threats have been distinguished (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002). First, some event might reduce the perceived disparity between the group to which individuals belong and other distinct collectives (Tamier & Nadler, 2007;; Turner, 1999). Individuals might, for example, assume their organization offers some unique intervention, only to discover their main rival had previously introduced a similar program.

Second, individuals might discover the values of their group are not as moral as they had originally assumed (e.g., Wolh & Branscombe, 2005). They might, perhaps, discover their leader has behaved improperly.

Finally, individuals might learn their group is not as competent or competitive as rivals. That is, their group might not have acquired the status or competitive advantages they had presumed to secure sufficient resources (Ellemers, Kortekaas, & Ouwerkerk, 1999).


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