Questions & Answers: What is stereotype threat?

Questions & Answers

Q. What is stereotype threat, and does the term have practical significance?

A. Hostile or dismissive stereotypes are a terrible burden. Members of stereotyped groups must be ready to respond to predictable frustrations and perils — inadvertent insults, barriers to achievement, and even physical dangers. One of the less obvious penalties of stereotyping is a predicament known as stereotype threat, first defined by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in 1995. It arises when members of the stereotyped group risk doing something that conforms to the dominant culture's typecasting. If their performance coincides even slightly with the demeaning belief, they may be reduced to that stereotype, either in the minds of others or, perhaps worse, in their own minds.

Thus stereotype threat has a disconcerting psychological component: a special kind of self-consciousness that is distracting, engenders anxiety, and interferes with the flexible and creative application of intellectual capacities. The best-known victims of stereotype threat are African American students burdened with racial prejudice, and women in technical fields.

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