Stereotype Threat: Why people perform worse at some tasks based on their identity

January 24, 2023   |   by Chris Kalaboukis

Have you ever heard that women are bad drivers?

Or that Asian students are good at math?

Or that people who work in accounting are not creative?

Well, there is a powerful psychological phenomenon which means that if someone is part of a group where there is a stereotype that they will underperform or be bad at a task, then that stereotype will actually make them perform worse.

How is this possible?

It is called the Stereotype Threat, and came from a groundbreaking 1995 research paper by Steele & Aronson which looked at why African American students seemed to underperform on certain tests, even when their intelligence was at the same level as other groups.

The researchers found that the stereotype that African Americans performed worse at these tests put mental pressure on the students while the test was being performed. Steele later used the phrase “churn” to describe the anxiety we all feel when thinking about how our identity will play out in a diverse setting. This anxiety used up mental ability, leading to lower performance on the test or other activity.

So if even part of your identity to a group is connected to being bad at an activity, when asked to perform that activity, your mind will either stress about potentially performing badly, or try so hard to not perform badly that it takes up resources which could otherwise be used to just perform the activity.

Think of an example of an activity in your own life that stresses you out. Some people are fine at driving but think they are bad at parallel parking. So whenever they are forced to parallel park, one of the things going through their mind is “I am no good at this, and that is making me stressed“, which ironically takes up valuable mental capacity which could be used to just calmly park the car.

And many other examples of churn and the stereotype threat have been found in other studies.

For example, Steele found in 1999 that the stereotype of women being worse at math than men would cause anxiety about taking a math test for many female students, leading them to in fact perform worse at the math test than their normal ability should allow. In fact, to counteract this, when a researcher examined the math performance of female and male participants and explained before a test that “this test did previously not show any difference in performance between men & women”, it reduced the anxiety for the females whose performance on the test then improved.

If you can remove the stereotype from people’s minds before they complete the task, they will be less burdened by it and will perform better.

Similarly, it appears you can make someone perform worse on a task if you make them compare themselves to someone who is expected to perform better.

Aronson led another research study in 1999 to look at what would happen to a stereotypically high performing group (white males) based purely on putting them in a different situation. Two groups of white males selected to be good at math were taken and given a math test:

  • One group just did a math test as normal (the control group)
  • The other group was told their performance would be compared against a group of Asian students (who have a stereotype of being even better at math than white males)

The results of the experiment showed that the group who thought their results would be compared to Asians performed worse than the group who was not expecting any comparison at all.

So nobody is immune to the stereotype threat, not even people who are in a group which is usually stereotypically strong.

Everyone can suffer from the anxiety of comparison and have it affect their performance.

This shows the dangers of comparing ourselves to others, especially if those people are either naturally more talented or have had significantly more time to hone their skills and craft.

This is likely to be one of the reasons why people are less likely to want to engage in creative activities as they get older, especially trying new creative things as an adult where they know that they will be worse than other people who have done it more.

It may also provide evidence for why people and companies often find creativity and innovation so challenging to implement.

Many people who have been at a company for a while will feel part of an in-group bias and status quo bias, where they believe that people like them do things a certain way. If they are asked to do things differently (which will always be the case when innovating), the sheer fact that they think people like them are usually not good at innovating or being creative might actually make them perform worse, leading to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

This may even be the case when the people asking them to innovate are colleagues from within their own company.

If the “innovation colleagues” are stereotypically creative or innovative, then the more traditional people being asked to do something different may feel the anxiety and churn in comparison to these people, leading to them fearing that they will fail (and indeed, perhaps this churn will cause them to fail).

And as we known, innovation fails at the handover.

But perhaps by strategically taking away the comparison and stereotype anxiety of the activity before it is done, we can make everyone involved more likely to succeed.