Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

This Essay Might Influence Your Performance – The Role of Stereotype Threat in Education

epeck's picture

Lawrence H. Summers, former Harvard president, is not known for his accomplishments within education or school administration.  Instead, he is widely known as the Harvard president who had to step down because of his remarks about women and science.  Summers spoke at a meeting regarding women’s progress in academia and, according to many in attendance, bluntly suggested that women do not achieve in math and science at the same levels men do because of an inborn lack of ability (2).  Although Summers has since protested that his statement was misunderstood, the public response to the alleged statement shows a tremendous amount about how far our society has come in understanding the power of a phenomenon known as stereotype threat.  Stereotype threat is a cognitive trend that can basically be described as a self-fulfilling prophesy for educational ability or behavior and has most often been studied with regard to the academic success of women and minorities, although it may be applicable to any stereotyped group and situation.  Based on knowledge of stereotype threat and how potent its effects can be on cognition, educators should work to change the classroom environment to reflect the fewest possible stereotypes.    

            Stereotype threat is based on the expectations individuals believe are placed on them.  Because one believes that there is a certain stereotype regarding a group they identify with, when performing a task that relates to the stereotype, the individual feels extra stress and anxiety, and uses cognitive power worrying about conforming to the stereotype.  Because this extra cognitive force is being spent on anxiety, the individual ends up not performing as well on the task as they might have without the burden of the stereotype.  Because of the individual’s performance on the task, whatever stereotype they were performing to gets perpetuated and continues to hold influence over the abilities of their group. 

            Stereotype threat is not only a reaction to an overt and obvious stereotype, it can appear with the presence of almost any reminder that the stereotype in question exists.  “Out of Thin Air, Part I” uses an experiment run at Stanford University to demonstrate just how little is needed in order to cause a significant gap in performance.  Black and White students in this study were given a short SAT-style test and half of the sample was asked to share their race before starting the test in addition to other demographic questions, such as age and major.  The control group filled out all of the demographic information, except for the section regarding race.  Not surprisingly, the Black students who hadn’t been primed to consider race did just as well on the test as their White peers.  This is no surprise considering that all students had already been judged on their academic abilities when they applied for college and were accepted at Stanford.  The surprising piece of the experiment lies with the students who were asked to identify their race before starting the test.  These Black students did significantly worse that their white peers, despite the equality of scores found in the control group.  This shows that the cognitive abilities of the Black students were inherently no different than those of the White students, but when asked to consider race, their scores reflected what they subconsciously believed was expected of them.  By reminding them of their identification as a member of a group that has been stereotyped as performing lower than Whites, the Black students’ anxiety about this stereotype caused them to have a greater cognitive load than the White students and as a result, do worse on the task at hand (4).  Similar results have been found in studies relating to women and mathematics testing, White men in relation to Black men and athletics and White engineering students when compared to Asian students.

            Recently, it has also been found that stereotype threat does not only occur in the application of knowledge, such as in a testing setting, but that it interferes with learning knowledge everyday in the classroom – and starting from a young age.  “When Negative Gender Stereotypes Hang Heavy in the Classroom, Girls Learn Less” discusses this issue by citing an experiment that taught women a skill involving “visual perception” – a skill that is typically thought to be difficult for women to learn (1).  The women who were taught the skill without being reminded of their status and supposed disadvantage as women, performed well, while women who were primed to identify as women were unable to learn the skills needed.  When further investigated, it was found that the women who were primed to think of their female stereotype were not only performing below the women who had not been primed, but they actually had not been able to learn how to perform the task (1).  This principle has been tested with women and math skills, and it was found that, again, women not only have trouble performing well and recalling information when reminded of the negative stereotypes they are faced with, but they also have a lot of trouble with the process of memorizing and learning the mathematics needed to complete the task when they are in the stereotyped condition (1).  Sian Beilock, the author of “When Negative Gender Stereotypes Hang Heavy in the Classroom, Girls Learn Less,” also discovered that at very young ages, and for various reasons, children agree with the ideas that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading” (1).  These common stereotypes can negatively affect both male and female abilities in academics if they are not corrected early.

            Since it has been shown that students can all perform at the same level, despite the stereotypes that exist regarding race and gender, it would be extremely beneficial for educators to use this knowledge in order to help students perform to their true potential rather than their stereotyped potential.  “Stereotype Threat, Causes, Effects & Remedies” offers several possible ways to work on the elimination of stereotype in the classroom.  The key suggestions are to “refram[e] the task, deemphasiz[e] threatened social identities,

provid[e] role models, hav[e] the test administered by a member of the stigmatized group, provid[e] external attributions for difficulty, and assur[e] individuals that they are capable” (3 pg.5).  Basically, by reassuring students that they are able to complete the task at hand as well as anyone else, not teaching to stereotypes and showing examples of diversity within the classroom, school and society (5), teachers can get much more out of their students, and students will not have to face as much anxiety in terms of their identity’s role in their education.


            Whether one is an educator, or a student, and no matter how formal or informal the education, I think it is important to look at what stereotypes may be being primed and therefore affecting performance or achievement.  The concept of stereotype threat is one that shows just how important it is to research the mind.  However, it also shows how dangerous it can be to put ideas about the brain into the public sphere.  If scientists find that women have brains that are less able to handle spatial reasoning, it is likely that stereotype threat will ensure that very few women enter fields that involve mental reasoning.  However, if the research is later found to be lacking, society can’t take back the effect the research has already had on stereotypes or any ideas towards women and spatial reasoning – so the danger mainly lies in claiming that there are neurological differences between any groups.  This is why Lawrence Summers’ statement was so incendiary – by stating his opinion about neurological difference between men and women publically, he could have (and probably did to some extent) influenced the public’s view of women’s physiological mental abilities – causing women’s performance and participation in math and science to drop, despite a potential equality in women’s abilities with men’s.  As Sam Sommers eloquently states, “stereotypes…pose risks when they're just out there in the ether, lingering unspoken in the social air around us. Out of thin air, stereotypes have the power to shape our behavior” (4).  Just knowing that a stereotype exists is enough to change an individual’s behavior, and because of this, the cultural climate has a huge role in determining ability.  Knowing that stereotypes can have such a strong influence is frightening, yet is also empowers education to lift the boundaries and barriers that stereotypes create and allow all who want to learn to have an equal opportunity.




(1)Beilock, S. (2010, August 10). When negative gender stereotypes hang heavy in the classroom, girls learn less. Psychology Today, Retrieved from

(2) Dobbs, M. (2005, January 19). Harvard chief's comments on women assailed. The Washington Post, (Pg. A02), Retrieved from

(3) Singletary, S., Ruggs, E. N., Hebl, M. R.  (2009).  Stereotype threat: causes, effects & remedies.  Assessing Women and Men in Engineering, Retrieved from

(4) Sommers, S. (2010, September 13).  Out of thin air, part I.  Psychology Today, Retrieved from

(5) Sommers, S. (2010, September 19).  Out of thin air, part II.  Psychology Today, Retrieved from




Paul Grobstein's picture

steretype threat, education, and research

"the danger mainly lies in claiming that there are neurological differences between any groups."

There is an interesting issue here.  Ought one not do research on cognitive differences between different groups of people?  Or is there a way to do it that doesn't create the stereotype problem?