“Stereotype threat” is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we worry that our behavior may confirm stereotypes about a group we belong to, our attention splits between the task at hand and our anxieties, often causing us to behave in ways that confirm the very stereotypes at the root of our anxieties. When we experience stereotype threat, we get distracted and our bodies undergo temporary changes. This can have serious consequences. In one study, black Stanford students were given a test; the group that was told the test was measuring intellectual ability scored far worse than the group who were told they were merely problem solving. For the first group, a “threat” existed, the threat of confirming harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about black intelligence.
Stereotype threat is particularly relevant to education, where students are frequently told their abilities and intelligence are being tested. Studies have demonstrated that stereotype threat influences performance as early as middle school. As we rely more and more on high-stakes standardized testing, we are also creating more and more opportunities for stereotype threat to manifest. Stereotype threat can affect white people as well. White people can become so concerned about appearing to be prejudiced, that they avoid meaningful contact with people of color. This means that white teachers of black or Latino students are less likely to give critical feedback on assignments for fear of appearing racist.
Social scientists have developed strategies to either prevent stereotype threat from being triggered or lessen its impacts. Studies have indicated that moving demographic questions to the end of a standardized test can avoid triggering stereotype threat and cause significant improvement in scores. Other interventions focus more on making it as clear as possible to people why they are receiving feedback, so as to eliminate the assumption that race is the cause. Encouraging students to think of skills as the result of hard work rather than inherent ability also helps limit stereotype threat, as does finding ways to encourage a sense of belonging.