BOSTON, MA — As members of a stereotyped group grapple with how their self-image interacts with a stereotype, they may be dealing with a predicament that mental health professionals call stereotype threat. In the February issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, editor-in-chief Dr. Michael Miller discusses this recently identified problem.
Stereotype threat 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 a demeaning belief, they may be reduced to that stereotype, either in the minds of others or in their own minds.
Stereotype threat can lead to self-consciousness that is not only distracting and anxiety-provoking, but can also interfere with achievement. For example, when an exam is billed as a test of intellectual ability, blacks perform worse than whites, presumably because the situation evokes racial biases about intelligence. When the same test is advertised as a neutral problem-solving task, blacks and whites perform equally well.
Dr. Miller reports that the good news is that there are ways to avoid or counteract stereotype threat. These include:
individual awareness that the problem is not one’s own fault but a common social condition
counseling that helps people break out of the mold and reclaim their status as individuals
affirmation from teachers that an aspiring student can fit into a particular field, and that there is great diversity even within cultural and professional groups
role models who are members of the stereotyped group.