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How Stereotypes Can Hold You Back

A few weeks ago Peter Judodihardjo made a video on Stereotype Threat. According to him, it's possibly his favorite video to have made so far because it addresses a mightily important issue: that negatively stereotyped people, can perform worse for no other reason, other than the existence of that negative stereotype. In this article, he's going to outline how this works!


The idea is counterintuitive. But it suggests that those people who are aware of negative stereotypes about them and are primed to think about them, actually behave in a way that confirms that negative stereotype.

For example, if the stereotype is that black students are less intelligent than white students, then if black students are primed to think about that stereotype, they actually perform worse on tasks that test intelligence.

The research to support this claim is overwhelming. The original study by Steele and Aronson has been cited more than 10,000 times, and ever since it has become a well-established concept in social psychology.

The original studies looked primarily at performance on tests of academic/intellectual ability. What they found was that simply stating your social group at the start of the paper was enough to prime the stereotype, and induce stereotype threat.


My favorite paper on this was conducted on a group of Asian American Women. The set up for this paper was very smart because at the time the paper was written, Asian American Women had two stereotypes that conflicted with each other. One was that Asians are good at math. The other was that women are worse at math than men.

The researchers split the cohort of Asian women into three groups at random. At the start of a very hard maths test, the first group wrote their race. The second group wrote their gender. The third wrote nothing at all, they were the control.

What the researchers found was that when the Asian women wrote their ethnicity at the start of the test, they outperformed the control. But the results reversed when they wrote their gender. When they wrote 'female' at the start of the test, they performed worse than the control.

Similar effects have been observed in just about every social group because no matter what social groups you belong to, there are still negative stereotypes about you.


Even white people have been shown to perform worse on maths tests when told they were being compared with Asians.

So what mechanism is the cause of this effect?

My explanation in the video goes something like this. Priming a negative stereotype about someone causes a level of anxiety in them because everything they do is viewed through the lens of whether or not they are confirming or disconfirming the stereotype.

This anxiety leads to them seeking ‘attributional ambiguity’ for their failure. They want to disguise the true cause of why they failed. So, for fear of confirming the stereotype, individuals engage in self-defeating behavior, like not trying as hard, or not preparing as well for the task. By doing so, it becomes hard to tell why they performed poorly. It could be because of their race, but more likely it was the lack of effort or preparation.

This allows the individual to actually maintain their sense of self-image, as they can continue to believe that if they had just tried a little harder, they could still achieve that higher level of performance. This is more preferable than having to resign themselves to the (false) reality, that the stereotype is true, and that they can never succeed because of their race.


However, since making that video, I have spoken to Professor Dave Nussbaum from the Chicago Booth School of business, who actually wrote a paper with Claude Steele on stereotype threat before.

Professor Nussbaum agreed that this was one mechanism that could explain stereotype threat, but he suggested that there's another more simple explanation. And that's a cognitive load argument.

Take a maths test for example. If a white student can't remember if they should be using cosine or tangent on a question, then that's all they have to think about and figure out.

However, for the negatively stereotyped black student, they have to worry not only about choosing either cosine or tangent correctly but also worry about whether, messing up cosine with a tangent, confirms the negative stereotype of black students being less intelligent than white students.

In essence, the negative stereotype becomes an additional thing to think about, so adds cognitive load. Therefore, the test is actually harder.


The evidence for this explanation, (which I now think is more likely than mine), is that stereotype threat seems to only occur for tests that push the limits of one's capability. For easy tests, negatively stereotyped students seem to perform just fine.

On hard tests, however, there is less cognitive bandwidth to play with. The test is already pushing their cognitive limits, and the additional stress caused by the negative stereotype seems to be enough to tip the scales against them.

So, if you want to find out how we can combat stereotype threat, you'll have to watch my video!


Thanks again for writing another article for the blog Peter! If you like Pete's writing style, make sure to check out this article he also wrote for Money on the Mind on self-control. And of course, check out his YouTube channel!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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