Expanding Our Picture of Stereotype Threat

Stacey Goguen (Boston University)1

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Abstract: Stereotype threat is a certain experience of anxiety in connection with a negative stereotype about a social group you belong to. For instance, women in math classes might experience anxiety regarding the stereotype that they are bad at math. Similarly, Black and Latina students might experience anxiety in their classes due to the stereotype that they are not cut out for academic endeavors. To be affected by stereotype threat, you do not have to believe that the stereotype is true, but rather, simply worry that others might devalue you in line with those stereotypes.

The most well-known and studied effect of stereotype threat is its ability to hinder performance on tasks such as tests. The intense focus on this “underperformance effect” has created a certain picture of stereotype threat wherein performance is the most central and most important aspect of the phenomenon. Performance certainly is central in some contexts, and it certainly is an important effect. But it is not the only important effect, and it may not even be a central part of phenomena in all contexts.

I argue that we should expand our picture of stereotype threat in three ways, by emphasizing that:

  1. When defined broadly (which I argue it should be), stereotype threat is experienced by a wider group of people than just those who experience its underperformance effects.
  2. Stereotype threat does not primarily put pressure on our performance; more broadly, it puts pressure on our self-identity and self-worth, which may then, under certain circumstances, put pressure on our performance.
  3. Stereotype threat can impact not just our success in a stereotyped domain (via performance), but also our self-identity in that domain, and our sense of self more generally. (Oh, and also our health. That might be important, too.)

This expanded picture of stereotype threat opens up a host of interesting philosophical projects, such as the influence that stereotypes can have on our interests and our identity, further ways that stereotype threat may be contributing to the underrepresentation of marginalized groups in academic fields, the connection between stereotype threat and epistemic injustice, the impact stereotypes can have on epistemic agency, and how informal scientific models are created and maintained.  

1. Introduction – Our ‘Picture’ of A Phenomenon

Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals realize they could potentially be devalued in accordance with a negative stereotype about one of their social groups. At base, it is a source of anxiety, one that is often unconsciously experienced, and one that does not require an individual to explicitly believe that the negative stereotype about their social group is true. They must only be aware that such a stereotype exists, and fear than someone in the stereotyped domain (e.g. math, academia, etc.) considers the stereotype to possibly be true, or to possibly be grounds for devaluing them. For instance, a woman might realize that, in a math class, she could be viewed through the lens that women are bad at math, and so she might be devalued as a math student, as someone who can contribute to or succeed in the class, or as a member of the mathematics community on campus, etc.

Stereotype threat has multiple effects, but the most well-known is a decrease in performance on difficult evaluative tasks, such as difficult tests. To study this, researchers monitor the performance of individuals of a particular social group under conditions that they think (usually based on previous research) are likely to induce stereotype threat. For instance, a group of women could be reminded that men tend to score better on the math test they are about to take. Or more subtly, the exam could simply be administered by a man. The performance of the women ‘under threat’ is then compared to a control group of women who were not subjected to stereotype threat, or even actively protected from it. For example, the control women could be told that the math questions they are about to answer will not evaluate their mathematical ability, but rather show the researchers different problem-solving strategies that people use. It turns out, people under stereotype threat conditions do worse on a whole range of evaluative tasks when compared to the control group—where the only difference between the two is whether a negative stereotype about them has been made salient or not.

One such study showed that young girls perform worse on a “geometry” task in comparison to another group of girls who are given the same exact task, but are told it is a “drawing” exercise (Huguet et al. 2001). Because a math task, but not an art task, relates to a negative stereotype about women,  the girls who had to complete the “geometry” task experience stereotype threat and have their performance hindered. Similarly, another study observed the underperformance effect in Black college students when they were asked to perform a golf task and were told that it measured “sports intelligence. ” In that same set of studies, White college students who performed the very same task underperformed (in comparison to other non-threatened White students) when they were told the task measured “natural athletic ability” (Stone et al. 1999).

These studies I have just describe represent the dominant narrative of stereotype threat, whereby it is, first and foremost, the cause of underperformance. This “Standard Picture” is perhaps something of an informal scientific model, though it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze that. Rather, what I want to emphasize here is that the Standard Picture is the most common story those of us outside of psychology hear about stereotype threat. It is the snapshot we are usually given, and that we usually reach for, when thinking and writing about this phenomenon. However, this snapshot, this way of framing what is going on, obscures a deeper issue: that stereotype threat affects not just our performance, but our very sense of self.[2] And while the psychology literature is aware that stereotype threat goes “beyond performance” (Derks, Inzlicht, and Kang 2008, 165), an expanded picture is rarely discussed, and has not been fully fleshed out, especially for an audience interested in philosophical issues.

In this paper, I explain the limits of the Standard Picture, then articulate and flesh out an Expanded Picture, concluding with a short discussion of some of the philosophical projects that are opened up and furthered by the Expanded Picture. Specifically, the Expanded Picture expands our conception of what stereotype threat is, who experiences stereotype threat, and how stereotype threat can impact our lives.

2. The Limits of the Standard Picture

Social psychologists who study stereotype threat have pointed out the phenomenon actually has a host of effects going “beyond performance” (Derks et al. 2008, 165). These other effects include: decreased effort, decreased confidence and increased self-doubt, decreased interest and aspiration to pursue careers in the stereotyped domain, increased general anxiety, and some physiological effects as well, such as increased blood pressure and stress (Shapiro and Aronson 2013, 97). However, the majority of research on stereotype threat does not focus these effects.  Davies, Spencer, and Steele (2005) notes, “In stark contrast to the abundance of research on performance, there has been a complete lack of research on how stereotype threat can influence [among other things] the aspirations of stigmatized individuals” (278). Ten years later, there is no longer a “complete lack of research” on these other effects, but the lion’s share of research remains focused on underperformance.

There are good reasons why underperformance has received a lot of attention. It is an important piece of the puzzle regarding the well-known achievement gaps in U.S. public education, such as that between Black and White students. This is a gap that shows up at all grade levels. While part of the explanation seems to be discrepancies in preparation and skill level, stemming from discrepancies in socioeconomic status, part of the gap remains even when these things are accounted for  (Steele, Spencer and Aronson 2002, 379). It turns out, stereotype threat, and specifically the underperformance effect, may be exacerbating these achievement gaps. Furthermore, the ubiquity of testing in education means that any phenomenon that may contribute to unfair advantages or disadvantages in testing situations is going to be highly relevant to a lot of people—students, teachers, and everyone who uses grades and degrees to evaluate individuals. And as the icing on the cake, the sorts of performances that stereotype threat can affect are fairly easily quantifiable and measurable, making effects on performance a good starting point for scientists to get a handle on this phenomenon that is impossible to pin down via other means, such as self-reporting or visible symptoms. Individuals are often unaware that they are experiencing anxiety, or one due to a stereotype specifically, and there are few ways to distinguish stereotype threat from other sorts of anxiety in everyday contexts.

Because of these reasons, or perhaps in addition to them, the underperformance effect makes for a good story. It provides us with a concrete effect to show the presence of stereotype threat, and it easily applies to situations that are relevant to our lives—i.e. how well we perform in school. By contrast, a more general description of the phenomenon—a form of anxiety that one may not even be fully aware of and that can lead to a host of effects—is much harder to conceptualize and apply to our lives. Thus, the primary snapshot of or soundbite about stereotype that researchers and other writers use is almost always one about how stereotype threat affects performance. Here is one such snapshot:

[Because] African Americans are well aware of the negative stereotypes impugning their intellectual ability, whenever they are in a situation requiring them to display said ability—say, a standardized testing situation—they may fear confirming the stereotype. Ironically, this fear of stereotype confirmation can hijack the cognitive systems required for optimal performance and result in low test performance. (Inzlicht and Schmader 2011, 6)

As I mentioned above, this snapshot is great for explaining the underperformance effect and some of the relevance that stereotype threat may have in testing or evaluative situations. However, this is not the whole picture.

3. The Expanded Picture

A broader picture of stereotype threat is most explicitly discussed by Steele, Spencer, and Aronson (2002), where they argues that stereotype threat is a subset of a larger phenomenon, social identity threat. Social identity threat is  threat of devaluation that stems from one’s social identity—specifically how that identity may be perceived or judged in a certain context. For instance, being the only woman or person of color in a room can trigger social identity threat, since one’s minority status may raise worries about whether that social identity is valued or welcomed in this domain. In this case, it does not matter whether the domain is a stereotyped one.  Similarly, if someone mentions your social identity in a seemingly-irrelevant context, (“Oh, we don’t have many Asians here at Company X”), that might also trigger social identity threat—i.e. a worry that you may be devalued in this domain (Company X) because of a possible-stigmatized identity (being Asian). Similarly, simply seeing evidence that all 20 past presidents of University Y have been older white men could trigger social identity threat, in that one could worry that, in not being an older white man, they may been viewed as unfit for promotion or leadership positions at University Y. In short, social identity threat can be triggered “by any cue relevant to the evaluative jeopardy of people with a given social identity” (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002, 419).

Insofar as stereotype threat is specific subset of social identity threat, it, too, is at base an awareness of potential evaluative jeopardy connected with one’s social identity. Notice, this framing says nothing yet about performance. In fact, Steele, Spencer and Aronson define stereotype threat as the following condition:

When a negative stereotype about a group that one is part of becomes personally relevant, usually as an interpretation of one’s behavior or an experience one is having, stereotype threat is the resulting sense that one can then be judged or treated in terms of the stereotype or that one might do something that would inadvertently confirm it. (Steele, Spencer, Aronson 2002, 389).

Here, too, we see that performance is not part of their definition of stereotype threat. Any behavior that could be evaluated or interpreted in line with a negative stereotype—not just performance—can be the focus of stereotype threat. This is contrasted with the standard picture of stereotype threat, which characterizes it is more narrowly as the fear that one’s (poor) will confirm a negative stereotype about one’s social group (in the eyes of others).[3]

This expanded picture raises some interesting implications for what exactly counts as stereotype threat, and who experiences it. The standard picture acknowledges that not every instance of stereotype threat will lead to underperformance. For if the test ones faces is actually on the easy side, their worry about confirming a stereotype, and subsequent motivation to disconfirm that stereotype through their performance, can actually result in better performance (Aronson and Shapiro 2013).

What the standard picture does not usually acknowledge is that not everyone who experiences stereotype threat will necessarily worry about their performance. I will discuss two cases raised by Steele, Spencer, and Aronson. The first case is that of “psychological disengagement.” Some people may react to stereotype threat (especially when experienced chronically) by psychologically disengaging from the stereotyped domain. This means they de-couple their self-esteem from the task at hand, resulting in them caring less about how well they do on it. For example, one study showed that “after the possibility of racial bias was primed, Black participants were unaffected by negative feedback they received on an intelligence test” ((Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002, 409).[4]  A student who sits at the back of the class and does not put a lot of effort into their test is an example of someone who is disengaged. A person who is disengaged will not worry about their performance confirming a stereotype about their group, because they have stopped caring how they are evaluated in this context.

The second case involves domain avoidance. For instance, “women who incidentally watched TV commercials with negatively stereotyped women in them, compared to women who watched neutral commercials, reported less interest in quantitatively based college majors and subsequent careers” (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002, 408).[5] In this case, individuals can physically or socially avoid domains where they are likely to experience further incidences of stereotype threat. A person who drops a class after feeling uncomfortable there or who stops playing video games with their friends because they find it too stressful are examples of domain avoidance. Steele, Spencer and Aronson categorize disengagement and domain avoidance and two “acute” or immediate responses to stereotype threat.

Another acute responses to stereotype threat is to attempt to engage in counter-stereotypic behaviors. That is, this is the response of trying to show that the stereotype is not personally relevant to yourself, because you are an exception. This is the response undertaken by people who succumb to the underperformance effect. They are trying to disprove the stereotype. This strategy backfires, however, when the task at hand is difficult. Although these individuals have increased their effort on the task, they are also being hypervigilant towards potential mistakes, as well as trying to regulate their emotional responses to potential mistakes (Schmader, John, and Forbes, 2008; Inzlicht and Schmader 2011, 35).  This multitasking requires too many cognitive resources, which results in them being more likely to make mistakes.

Sometimes this strategy does succeed. An example is the story of Brent Staples whistling tunes from Vivaldi on the streets of Chicago to signify that he was an exception to the stereotype of Black men being dangerous (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002, 408). Steele, Spencer, and Aronson emphasize that even when this strategy is successful, it is bound to be a Sisyphean attempt. That is, it only works for that instance, and so it must be repeated each time stereotype threat is raised. As a result, Steele, Spencer, and Aronson argue that many people may engage in a “chronic” or long-term response to persistent stereotype threat, which is dis-identification. Some people who psychologically disengage from some tasks within a domain might still identify with the domain as a whole—they might still care about being a valued member of that domain. But others might pull away from the domain as a whole.

For instance, I experienced stereotype threat regarding first person shooter (FPS) games and the stereotype that women are bad at gaming. Since being a gamer is something I heavily identify with, this experience of stereotype threat was intense and unpleasant. In college, I constantly worried that if I did not get better at these games, my friends would not consider me a true gamer, and my gamer friends would lose respect for me. However, every time I tried to play these games, I was stressed and unhappy. Eventually, I began to dis-identify with FPS games all together, and began to bifurcate them from my gamer identity. “No, I’m not that kind of gamer” I would say; “I prefer strategy games and ones that require more than just hand-eye coordination.”

Once I dis-identified with FPS games, it actually became more fun to play them, though I did so a lot less. But I was no longer stressed and anxious when I did so, because I had convinced myself that they did not speak to my abilities and my standing as a gamer more generally. They no longer mattered to me, in that failing at them was longer a threat to my self-esteem and reputation (or more specifically, the reputations I cared about.)

On the standard picture, my experience with FPS games would rarely be recognized as an instance of stereotype threat. Instead, we would zoom in and focus on those few moments when I had played an FPS game, tried hard to be good at them, and failed extra hard because I was suffering from cognitive overload. But as I hope I’ve shown, that is just the surface of this phenomenon. Stereotype threat continued to affect me long after I put down the game controller, and before I picked it up again. It started to influence some my long-term behaviors, and even my very sense of self. As a philosopher, I find the latter particularly fascinating. We have known about the “sour grapes” experience for a long time, but stereotype threat presents a particularly interesting confluence of factors, often below the level of conscious awareness, that can influence our very identity.

Another way this happens with stereotype threat is that some individuals will attempt to bifurcate their social identities, de-emphasizing the ones connected with negative stereotypes. That is, instead of dis-identifying with the stereotyped domain, they will dis-identify with the stereotyped group. For instance, one study hypothesized that to stay identified with math, women under stereotype threat would “bifurcate” their self-identity, dis-identifying with “those aspects of being a woman they perceived as being negatively stereotyped in the math domain, while remaining identified with aspects of being a woman they perceived as unproblematic in math” (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002, 415).[6] And the study found that, “even a one-time exposure to a stereotype threatening message–a Science article suggesting a biological limit to women’s math ability—was enough to influence the threatened women to eschew (more so than the control group) traits such as “wearing makeup, showing emotion, and having children” (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002, 415).

Steele, Spencer, and Aronson argue that this work on social identity threat and dis-identification blur a distinction that appears much sharper under the standard picture. In the standard picture, there is a certain type of student who is more susceptible to stereotype threat: the “vanguard” (2002, 414). These are highly skilled and highly motivated students, who, when experiencing stereotype threat, will immediately try to engage in counter-stereotypic behaviors in order the personally disprove any stereotypes that are in the air. In contrast, rearguard students who are less motivated may still underperform, but that will be due less to stereotype threat and more due to known issues with low expectations. Steele, Spencer, and Aronson argue that instead (on the expanded picture), these students fall along a continuum. Something that Steele, Spencer, and Aronson do not emphasize, but that I want to, is that in these students falling on a continuum, they are falling on a continuum of experiencing stereotype threat.

The student who never underperforms on a test because they have left the domain experiences stereotype threat just as much as the student who buckled down and tried to prove the stereotype wrong. The student who leaves the domain will not experience stereotype threat as much in the future (in this domain), but we can speak of their reaction (i.e. leaving the domain) as being a reaction to stereotype threat. The difference between the student who leave the domain and the student who experiences the underperformance effect is not whether or to what degree they experiences stereotype threat. The difference is where their starting motivations and identities lie, and what ended up being the path of least resistance for the. For someone who is already highly identified with a domain and highly motivated to succeed there (e.g. a math major), they are much more likely to engage in counter stereotypic behavior. But for someone who is not (yet) identified with a domain or motivated to succeed there, it may simply be easier for them to pick a different subject matter than to put up with the stress and anxiety that chronic stereotype threat induces.

What does this all imply for thinking about stereotype threat? Steele, Spencer, and Aronson argue that all forms of social identity threat might have the potential to create an underperformance effect, but they emphasize that these threats could also cause “conflicting motivations” and “pressure the person to disengage or dis-identify with the setting.” Therefore, social identity threat is more than just a source of underperformance; it is “an ongoing pressure against […] full engagement” in a given domain (Steele, Spencer and Aronson 2002, 419).  Thus, the takeaway message of the expanded picture of stereotype threat is much broader than the takeaway message from the standard picture. The latter is simply that, “The fear of confirming derogatory stereotypes can hinder academic performance” (Cohen, Garcia and Jabr 2013). But on the expanded picture, our take-away is that even stereotypes we don’t outright believe can make full engagement with a domain much harder.[7] Specifically, they do this by putting pressure on our self-esteem and self-worth. That, in turn, puts pressure on either (1) our performance in a domain, (2) our continued investment in that domain, or (3) our very presence in that domain. Which of these will happen depends of a variety of factors, such as our current levels of engagement with the domain and the strength of our self-identity in relation to both the stereotyped domain and stereotyped group. In this way, the expanded picture helps us analyze the different sorts of responses people have to stereotype threat, and what sorts of factors are likely mediating their responses.[8]

4. Philosophical Projects Opened Up by the Expanded Picture

With the expanded picture, it is rather straightforward to argue that stereotype threat impacts much more than just our achievement and success in a stereotyped domain. It can potentially impact our interest in stereotyped domains, as well as our self-identity. These, in turn, may affect our self-growth and sense of agency, especially in the context of school, as well as the pipeline problem in philosophy, and even our long term health. Issues of performance and achievement are still important, but they are one piece of a much larger set of puzzles. So while the standard picture remains a useful snapshot, it is too narrow for understanding the full scope of stereotype threat.

Some philosophers have already started to take up an expanded picture of stereotype threat. For instance, Helen Beebee and Jennifer Saul (2011) have gestured towards the broader impact of stereotype threat:

It is worth noting […] that the issue [of stereotype threat] isn’t merely one of underperformance. Being subject to stereotype threat is stressful (recall the elevated heart rate and blood pressure). Someone who is subject to it on a daily basis will find their job (or their PhD study) more stressful, in general, than someone who is not, and is therefore less likely to want to stay in the stressful environment in the long term (Steele 2010, 111). (Beebee and Saul 2011, 13)

Similarly, Rachel McKinnon has also pointed out the importance of looking beyond performance when thinking about problems of diversity in academia. She argues that if we focus our attention solely on performance,

such a discussion ignores the many social effects (other than cognitive performance), such as situational avoidance, that are also important to discussions of stereotype threat in feminism. Moreover, ignoring these aspects of stereotype threat leaves a potentially powerful explanation for the gender disparity in philosophy (and other areas of academe) unclaimed. (McKinnon 2014, 861)

Elsewhere I argue that stereotype threat may likely play an important role in what groups of people tend to be “interested” in philosophy (Goguen 2016). Thus, stereotype threat serves as challenge to those, such as David Papineau (2015), who suggest that if women do happen to be less interested in philosophy than men, we should perhaps simply “let the gender numbers fall where they may.” Stereotype threat’s capacity to influence our interests and identities presents a very compelling case for why we should not accept certain demographic differences as either natural or benign.

Another philosophical project furthered by the expanded picture is the way that there is more at stake in education than just academic achievement and success. Sally Haslanger argues that disengagement and ego depletion (which stereotype threat can cause) can force one into a “narrow range of conversations that do not enable one to form a self that is fully integrated into public space” (Haslanger 2014, 122). Being alienated in this way can present obstacles for a person to fully develop their rational capacities, and for them to explore and embody a satisfying process of self-formation as they grow up. Chronic experiences of stereotype threat might affect whether students feel able to take on certain social roles in educational contexts, such as the role of being an expert, a source of knowledge, etc. Haslanger points out, “schools are contexts in which we develop self-understandings and identities that situate us as members of society” (2014, 109). So if stereotype threat restricts our self-understandings in education contexts, that may have a ripple effect through the rest of our life, especially regarding our sense of ourselves as reliable knowers.[9]

Furthermore, stereotype may also affect our sense of belonging in stereotyped domains, which can also spill over into other domains, plausibly creating more “global” effects on our sense of self. There is little empirical work being done of this currently—an exception being Walton and Cohen’s work on belonging-uncertainty in the face of social identity threat and stereotype threat (2007). This is a place where philosophy can help, by connecting some of the dots implied by current empirical research, and integrating what social psychology knows about identity with what the questions and frameworks raised by social epistemology and social justice-oriented philosophy. It seems likely that work on “sense of belonging,” especially in educational contexts, will intersect with philosophical work on epistemic communities and epistemic injustice.

Lastly, the expanded picture turns our attention to the long-term effects of stereotype threat, via the long-term effects of individuals’ coping strategies in the face of stereotype threat. One significant effect may be on our health. Individuals who experience stereotype threat chronically may as a result experience chronic stress, which can take a physiological, as well as psychological, toll. Claude Steele acknowledges this when he suggests that the underperformance effect could contribute to the broader phenomenon of “John Henryism.” This is a phenomenon whereby individuals exert intense amounts of effort in the face of chronic stress (e.g. as stemming from discrimination or stereotype threat), which can lead to a deterioration of their physiological health (Steele 2009).

Though there has been precious few studies conducted on stereotype threat in health contexts, the few that have been done have significant implications. It has already been documented that doctors can be implicitly biased when diagnosing and prescribing treatment for patients (White and Chanoff 2011), and there exist various negative stereotypes that can apply to people as patients. For instance, a woman could be seen as overly emotional or over-sensitive; a Black patient could be viewed as overly aggressive or hyper-sexual; an overweight patient could be assumed to be lazy or inactive; and a patient a mental illness could be viewed as inherently irrational or unreliable. If these patients experience stereotype threat, it could affect their behavior (e.g., increase in stress, anxiety, and impulsivity)and potentially how they choose to describe themselves and their symptoms. For instance, one study that argues that Black women feel anxiety from stereotype threat in healthcare settings (Abdou and Fingerhut 2014). Such responses to stereotype threat could in turn exacerbate or trigger the implicitly biased behavior of healthcare providers. They could misread their patients’ symptoms, which could lead to misdiagnosis.

Thus, not only does stereotype threat involve basic effects beyond performance, but the scope of its full impact extends far beyond issues of achievement and success in a given domain. This phenomenon may play a role in how people relate to those around them, how they conceive of themselves, their self-growth as epistemic agents, and even their long-term health. For all the hundreds of studies conducted on stereotype threat thus far, researches have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon. Philosophers can help point out what current findings imply for our lives, as well as where future investigations might go, and what they might find when they get there.




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[1] Much thanks are owed to anonymous reviewers who gave substantial comments on an earlier version of this paper.

[2] Especial thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helping frame this claim.

[3] For examples of the standard picture, see Stone 2002, 1667; Bosson et al. 2002, 247; Cadinu et al. 2005, 572; Rosenthal and Crisp 2006, 502; Cole et al. 2006, 518; Carr and Steele 2009, 853; Alter et al. 2010, 166; Looby and Earleywine 2010, 834; Inzlicht and Schmader 2011; Murphy and Taylor 2011, 18; Schmader and Beilock 2011, 34; Mendes and Jamieson 2011, 51-2; Inzlicht, Tullett and Gutsell 2011, 106; Marx 2011, 124; Shih, Pittinsky and Ho 2011, 141; Croizet and Millett 2011, 187; Chasteen, Kang and Remedios 2011, 205; Stone, Chalabaev and Harrison 2011, 217; Sackett and Ryan 2011; Aronson and Dee 2011, 264; and Shapiro and Aronson 2013.

[4] The study cited here is from Major, et al. 1998. For further evidence of disengagement, see: Forbes and et al. 2008.

[5] The study cited here is from Davies et al. 2001. For further evidence of domain avoidance, see: Davies, Spencer, et al. 2002; Davies et al. 2005; and Oswald and Harvey 2000.

[6] The study cited here is Pronin, Steele, and Ross (2001).

[7] For examples of pieces of an expanded picture, see Aronson et al. 1999, 30; Schmader 2002, 194; Aronson and Inzlivht 2004, 830; Shapiro 2011, 71; Walton and Carr 2011, 89; Logel, Peach and Spencer 2011; Kray and Shirako 2011, 172; Richeson and Shelton 2011; Cohen, et al. 2011, 281; and Steele 2011.

[8] See also: Thoman et al. 2013.

[9] Moreover, this impact on our epistemic agency demonstrates a way in which stereotype threat may lead to epistemic injustice (Goguen, 2016).

6 thoughts on “Expanding Our Picture of Stereotype Threat”

  1. It is a delight to have the opportunity to comment on Stacey’s paper, “Expanding our Picture of Stereotype Threat.” I very much look forward to the exchange that will follow from this virtual panel. I am also excited to read Stacey’s further work on this topic, since, as she argues, there is still much work to be done, and in particular for philosophers working stereotype threat (ST).

    As I see it, Stacey defends three main claims in her paper:

    1. The first claim is a descriptive one. Stacey argues that ST involves basic, harmful, and enduring effects beyond the victim’s performance on specific (academic) tasks and that understanding and studying these broader effects has been for the most part neglected in the relevant literature.
    2. The second claim is a normative one. Stacey argues (i) that the broader effects of ST ought to be more widely studied if its full scope is to be properly understood; and therefore, (ii) that those who work on ST ought to expand their picture beyond the narrow issue of performance.
    3. The third claim concerns how philosophers can contribute to the field of ST. Stacey maintains that philosophers can aid with some of the conceptual groundwork by providing a more robust account of the self than the one that is currently operative in the literature. In particular, Stacey claims that suffering ST affects one’s self-identity more generally and not just one specific part of oneself. Moreover, she claims that the literature fails to properly engage with the broader, holistic dimension of selfhood because it lacks the robust concept of a “self.”

    While I am on board with a modified version of Stacey’s third claim – namely, that there is still more room for philosophers to do, namely, to develop some of the current empirical work on ST – I have reservations about the first and second claims. First, there a good deal of work within the ST literature that already argues compellingly that the effects of ST extend well beyond the immediate (academic, performance) context on which Stacey focuses. Moreover, there already exists a robust and ever-growing literature within social psychology on what Stacey calls the “expanded picture of ST,” that considers the effects of ST beyond performance. In what follows, I discuss some of this literature. Even though a good deal of the work for which Stacey is calling is already happening, there is great value in Stacey’s third claim. I conclude my comments by suggesting one avenue that might be explored for a specific account of selfhood that I believe fits quite nicely with the expanded picture of ST under consideration.

    On p. 4 of her paper, Stacey lists some of the effects of ST that go beyond the narrow context of performance. These include decreased effort, decreased confidence, increased self-doubt, decreased interest and aspirations to pursue careers in stereotyped domain, increased general anxiety, and physiological effects such as increased blood pressure and stress. She then goes on to claim that “the majority of research on stereotype threat does not focus on these effects” (4) and that “the lion’s share of research remains focused on underperformance” (ibid.). Though this may have been true a decade ago, it is no longer the case. Within the last decade or so, the field of ST has burgeoned to include a great deal of empirical work – longitudinal studies, field experiments, natural experiments, and field interventions – as well as meta-analyses of experiments that provide compelling evidence of effects of ST beyond (academic) performance (see Williams and Mohammed 2013 and reducingstereotypethreat.org for reviews of this literature). The work on which I’d like to focus in response to Stacey’s first and second claims is Inzlicht, Tullet, and Gutsell’s (2011) article where they develop a compelling model called stereotype threat spillover. Stereotype threat spillover details the social psychological processes whereby someone who is confronted with a negative stereotype can suffer short- and long-term, physiological and psychological effects in areas that are unrelated to the source of the threat.

    Indeed, stereotype threat spillover answers one of the questions that is at the root of Stacey’s main concern, namely, ‘what happens when victims of ST leave threatening environments?’ It does so by building on identity threat models of stigma, process models of ST, and theories of stress and coping to consider the broader and long-lasting effects of ST on individuals. One of the key points of this model is that the extra effort that victims of ST use to cope with the stress of ST results in a state called ego depletion (Muraven & Baumeister 2000). Ego depletion lingers with people long after they have left the threatening environment (Inzlicht, McKay, & Aronson 2006) and can lead to various maladaptive behaviors. The model of stereotype threat spillover claims that “since coping with stereotype threat is ego depleting, it has the potential to affect any domain requiring self-control” (Inzlicht et al. 2011, 112), which pertains to much of our daily lives.

    Drawing upon a wide range of experimental data, Inzlicht et al. (2011) note that after leaving a threatening environment, people continue to display maladaptive behaviors in contexts that are not related to the original threat (also see Inzlicht & Kang 2010). Based on this expanded picture of ST, Inzlicht et al. (2011) discuss a wide range of short- and long-term effects of the phenomenon. The former include aggression, risky decision-making, and over-eating; the latter include physical health problems such as obesity and hypertension and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In addition, they note studies that trace links between ST and other unhealthy behaviors such as failure to seek medical care, ignoring medical advice when care is sought, smoking, and drug use. The good news is that stereotype threat spillover is not inevitable (Ibid., 109); even when it does occur, there are many strategies that can be used by victims to offset these harmful consequences (Ibid., 117-118). Inzlicht et al. (2011) are not the only people working on an expanded picture of ST. There are numerous other studies that consider ST outside of academic contexts (Roberson et al. 2003, Davies et al. 2005, Kray et al. 2002); beyond a performance framework (Miller and Hoy 2003, Seibt & Förster 2004, Koenig & Eagly 2005); and that consider the long-term effects of ST in terms of physical health outcomes (Walton & Cohen 2011), and mental health outcomes (Pascoe & Smart Richman 2009).
    Insofar as this is the case, Stacey’s first two claims need to be appropriately modified to acknowledge that indeed, much of the work that she is calling for is already happening. If Stacey’s claim is that this expanded picture of ST is not the “snapshot” (p. 3) or “sound bite” (p.5) that philosophers are taking from social psychology (which may indeed be the case, though with some important exceptions such as Blum 2016, McKinnon 2014), then the criticism should be reframed and directed against philosophers – namely, that it is incumbent upon us to pay better attention to the empirical social psychology literature – and not as an argument that such work does not exist.

    So where does all of this leave Stacey’s third claim?

    Problematic first and second claims notwithstanding, the third claim still holds potential, though it too needs to be slightly modified. Stacey claims that philosophers can help social psychologists to develop a better conceptual foundation for the literature, precisely with regards to understanding how ST affects what she refers to throughout the paper as self-identity (p. 11), sense of self (p. 3), self-esteem (p. 11), self-worth (p. 11), self-growth (p. 11), and sense of agency (p. 11). I agree with Stacey to a point: indeed, the notion of what a self is, how self-understanding (in itself and also with regards to group identity) affects one’s sense of self are central questions and I look forward to more philosophical work on them within the context of ST. However, I still think that Stacey’s claim needs some modification, for as it stands, there is a good deal of research within the ST literature that already considers several of these points.

    For example, Steele and Aronson (1995) study the degree to which people identify with activities associated with their group and found that for African Americans, identity distancing from the group showed a desire for subjects not to be seen through the lens of a racial stereotype. This conclusion indeed pertains to one’s sense of self and self-identity. There has also been research on the process of identity bifurcation where subjects reject characteristics that are strongly associated with their group stereotype. For example, it was found that women who strongly identified with mathematics bifurcated their identity in response to ST (Pronin, Steele, & Ross 2004) and that collective threat – threat that occurs when one finds another group member who seems to confirm a group stereotype – resulted in lower self-esteem and greater distancing, both physical and psychological, from ingroup members who might also possess a stereotype that applies to the self through shared group membership (Cohen & Garcia 2005). Again, at the center of these studies are issues of self-identity, self-understanding, and sense of self. The conclusions that have been drawn from these and other studies is that in order to preserve one’s identity as a person in a certain stereotyped domain, stereotyped individuals sometimes distance themselves from a the part of their social identity that reflects the negative stereotype. Indeed, there is always more work to be done, especially on the difficult question of what a self is and how it changes over time, and philosophers can be helpful in giving precise definitions of the various aspects of the self that Stacey discusses. Still, it’s not fair quite right to say that there is no work that considers aspects of self-identity within the context of ST.

    Taking up the challenge that Stacey sets, we might ask how we should understand the self more robustly to account for the various dimensions of selfhood that Stacey considers.

    I’d like to suggest one avenue for developing an account of the self or subject that might be beneficial to social psychologists and I’m eager to here what Stacey and others think of this proposal. I’d like to suggest that a phenomenological account of subjects (broadly construed) can provide the conceptual framework for developing a more robust account of “selves” or “subjects” in ways that are consistent with Stacey’s project. A phenomenological account understands subjects to be embodied beings who are constituted both by their world (or, background situation, horizon, or context) and by their relationships to others. A subject is a being in the world. As such, one cannot get an accurate account of subjects severed from the world that constitutes them; moreover, it would be a mistake to atomize one single aspect of a subject (i.e, the physiological) from others (i.e., the existential or psychological). A phenomenological account of subjects is immune to the critiques that Stacey has raised for the following reasons.

    A phenomenological account of the subject considers the more enduring and penetrating consequences of effects like the ones that are brought about by ST, both over time in terms of one’s identity and also holistically in terms of one’s embodiment. Embodiment can be understood as the physiological-existential dimension of bodies in the world. This term is hyphenated because the two components are mutually affecting: physiological changes affect one’s existential and emotional predicament, existential and emotional changes affect one’s physiological well-being. All of these dimensions of selfhood taken together constitute both who one is and how one exists in the world.

    Claude Steele is someone else who has considered wide reaching and enduring effects of ST on the lives and identities of members of marginalized groups (here he has in mind Black people in the United States). His account of subjects is in line with the phenomenological, embodied, worldly one that I am suggesting. He writes:

    The psyche of individual blacks gets damaged…by bad images of the group projected in society – images of blacks as aggressive, as less intelligent, and so on. Repeated exposure to these images causes these images to be ‘internalized,’ implicitly accepted as true of the group and, tragically, also perhaps of one’s self. This internalization damages ‘character’ by causing low self-esteem, low expectations, low motivation, self-doubt and the like. And in turn, this damage contributes to a host of bad things, such as high unemployment, poor marriage success, low educational achievement and criminality (2010, 46).

    Steele continues:

    [I]f people are under threats from stereotypes or other identity contingencies for long periods, they may pay a tax. The persistent extra pressure may undermine their sense of well-being and happiness, as well as contribute to health problems caused by prolonged exposure to the physiological effects of the threat. And all the while…they may have little awareness that they are paying this tax (2010, 127).

    A phenomenological account of the subject recognizes that subjects must be understood within the background contexts of their lives, that identities endure over time, and that the manifestations of one’s surroundings show themselves in embodied ways. Such a phenomenological account of the subject is in keeping with a modified version of Stacey’s third claim in that it provides a specific point of departure for taking seriously the long term, “global” (14), embodied effects of ST, namely, how ST impacts our lives.

    I look forward to further work in this area and to collaborative work between philosophers and psychologists to try to figure out a more complete answer to this important question.

    R E F E R E N C E S

    Blum, L. (2016). “The Too Minimal Political, Moral, and Civic Dimension of Claude Steele’s ‘Stereotype Threat’ Paradigm.” In Implicit Bias and Philosophy, Vol. 2: Moral Responsibility, Structural Injustice, and Ethics. Edited by Michael Brownstein and Jennifer Saul. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 147-172.

    Cohen, G.L., & Garcia, J. (2005). “‘I am us’: Negative Stereotypes as Collective Threats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89: 566-582.

    Davies, P.G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. (2005). “Clearing the Air: Identity Safety Moderates the Effects of Stereotype Threat on Women’s Leadership Aspirations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88: 276-287.

    Inzlicht, M. & Kang, S. (2010).  “Stereotype Threat Spillover:  How Coping with  Threats  to  Social  Identity  Affects Aggression,  Eating,  Decision  Making,  and  Attention.”  Journal  of  Personality  and  Social  Psychology  99 (3): 467–481.

    Inzlicht, M., McKay, L., & Aronson, J. (2006). Stigma as ego depletion: How being the target of prejudice affects self-control. Psychological Science, 17, 262–269.

    Inzlicht, M., Tullet, A. M., & Gutsell, J. N. (2011). “Stereotype Threat Spillover: The Short- and Long-term Effects of Coping with Threats to Social Identity.” In Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application. Edited by Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Koenig, A.M., & Eagly, A.H. (2005). Stereotype Threat in Men on a Test of Social Sensitivity. Sex Roles 52: 489-496.

    Kray, L. J., Galinsky, A.D., & Thompson, L. (2002). “Reversing the Gender Gap in Negotiations: An Exploration of Stereotype Regeneration. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 87: 386-409.

    McKinnon, R. (2014). “Stereotype Threat and Attributional Ambiguity for Trans Women.” Hypatia 29 (4): 857-872.

    Milner, R. H., & Hoy, A. W. (2003). “A Case Study of African American Teacher’s Self-Efficacy, Stereotype Threat, and Persistence.” Teaching and Teacher Education 19.2: 263-276.

    Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 774–789.

    Pascoe, E. A., & Smart Richman, L. (2009). “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-554.

    Pronin, E., Steele, C., & Ross, L. (2004). “Identity Bifurcation in Response to Stereotype Threat: Women and Mathematics.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40: 152-168.


    Roberson, L., Deitch, E. A. Brief, A. P. & Block, C. J. (2003). “Stereotype Threat and Feedback Seeking in the Workplace.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 62: 176-188.

    Seibt, B., & Förster, J. (2004). “Stereotype Threat and Performance: How Self-Stereotypes Influence Processing by Inducing Regulatory Foci.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87: 38-56.

    Steele, Claude. 2010. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.

    Steele, C., & Aronson, J. (1995). “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797-811.

    Walton, G., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students.” Science 331.6023: 1447-1451.

    Williams, A. M., Jurcevic, I., & Shapiro, J. (2013). “Stereotype Threat.” Oxford Bibliographies.

    Williams, D. R., & Mohammed, S. A. (2009). Discrimination and racial disparities in health: Evidence and needed research. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 32, 20–47.

    L a u r e n F r e e m a n, P h. D.
    U n i v e r s i t y o f L o u i s v i l l e

    1. Many thanks to Freeman for her insightful comments.

      I agree that the first half of claim (1) is already well-established, and do not mean to frame it as controversial—except insofar as many of the effects beyond performance are sometimes framed as side-effects, or indirect effects. Regarding the second half of claim (1), that these effects beyond performance has not gotten enough attention, I have been somewhat persuaded by Lauren that parts of the literature are integrating this insight more so than I had previously realized. I’m glad she pointed out work such as Williams and Mohammed 2013. However, I still have the suspicion that in many of the overviews given on stereotype threat downplay the effects beyond performance as side notes. The effects of this downplaying range from unfortunate to potentially misleading, as I argue in my paper.

      Regarding stereotype threat spillover, I am a bit more torn after reading Lauren’s comments. On the one hand, she is right that spillover effects, such as ego depletion and other maladaptive behaviors can move us beyond just issues of performance. However, spillover effects themselves are currently studied as side-effects of the underperformance effect. So, these are beyond-performance effects stemming from the original core effect on performance. This comment from Lauren indicates to me that what I originally thought was one critique is actually two separate ones. The first is that we should think about effects beyond performance, and Lauren is right that research on spillover does this.

      The second critique, however, is that stereotype threat affects people even if they do not (necessarily) experience the underperformance effect. And from what I’ve seen, few researchers acknowledge that point, even when overviewing the phenomenon as a whole. So again, I’m grateful that Lauren’s pointed commentary made this distinction visible, whereas I think I conflate the two critiques in some places.

      Regarding the third claim, again, I do not mean to claim that there is no work being done on self-identity within the context of stereotype threat. My claim is, there needs to be more of it, because the lack of acknowledgement of it in some quarters is not only a missed opportunity, but also carries the potential for misunderstanding.

      That all said, let’s pick up where I think Lauren and I are most interested in thinking about issues of the self. I agree that an atomized picture of the self is likely to miss a lot of what is going on, since I think the self is often shaped by our contingent environments. For instance, aspects of myself are often made more salient when they come under attack, so whether I introduce myself to someone as, or think of myself as, a philosopher, a feminist, or a gamer, may be heavily influenced by whether any of those identities are being supported, challenged, or attacked in the given context. That’s one of many examples of how the self is embodied, if I’m correct that Lauren means that term in a broad sense here.

      One thing that I find really fascinating about stereotype threat comes out of the quotation from Claude Steele that Lauren gives in part, regarding the internalization of negative stereotypes. On the one hand, Steele emphasizes in his work that this internalization is not what he thinks is going on in stereotype threat…in terms of the underperformance effect. People don’t underperform because they’ve internalized (and believe) a negative stereotype about their group. They underperform because they’re distracted by thinking about how they need to prove such a stereotype wrong. However, Lauren and I are interested in the long-term and subtle effects that stereotype threat can have on the self. And it seems like, beyond the underperformance effect, there may in fact be ways that these negative stereotypes come to influence our self-identities. I’m not sure I’d want to say that we necessarily end up “internalizing” them, because I think the process can be more complicated. For instance, people may develop a dislike of a domain that they are negatively stereotyped in, in order to circumvent the need to determine whether they are any good at it. In one sense, some sort of ‘acceptance’ of the stereotype seems to be influencing their behavior, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to say the person has internalized or come to believe the stereotype is true.

      Again, I’m really grateful to have to opportunity to think more deeply and critically about this issue alongside Lauren. (Apologies for being slow in posting this response.)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this paper, and found a lot to agree with in it. I agree that focussing on underperformance as the sole or main or most interesting effect of stereotype threat is too narrow an approach (although it does of course have the virtue of being pretty easy to measure). In particular, underperformance has limited use in explaining women’s under-representation in philosophy; for example, so far as I know (admittedly I don’t have any hard data – just local, anecdotal evidence), men don’t outperform women at undergraduate level; and even if they do – as I say, I don’t have the hard data – it’s not nearly enough to explain the huge drop in the UK between the proportion of women studying for undergraduate and Masters degrees. Year after year, I’ve seen the vast majority of the very best male undergraduates go on to Masters study but the majority of the (equally good) very best female undergraduates go and do something else instead. There are reasons for this, and it would be good to get a better handle on what they are so that we can do something about it. Like Stacey, and unlike David Papineau (who was, as it happens, my PhD supervisor – and, I should add, a very supportive and encouraging one too), I am not content to ‘let the gender numbers fall where they may’.

    Some empirical work on this is already being done; Dougherty, Baron and Miller (‘Female under-representation among philosophy majors: a map of the hypotheses and a survey of the evidence’, Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 1, 2015) note some (non-performance-based) evidence for ‘internalized stereotype/gender schema hypotheses’. This is definitely an area that merits further research.

    Stacey is more interested in the potential for philosophical work on this broader conception of stereotype threat, however – and I agree about that too. Here, though, I guess I wanted to hear a little more detail on how philosophy might usefully contribute, and in particular on how we might deploy the idea of stereotype threat to ‘join the dots’, as she puts it, between issues surrounding social identity on the one hand and epistemic injustice on the other. Promulgating a culture that generates stereotype threat produces one obvious epistemic harm: it drives women away from philosophy and hence precludes them from participating in and benefitting from the production of philosophical knowledge. But how else might stereotype threat contribute to epistemic injustice? In her book on epistemic injustice, Miranda Fricker describes how stereotypes can undermine the perceived credibility of the speaker; but our question here is how they might undermine the speaker’s own behaviour in ways that impinge on epistemic goods.

    One very minor point relating to pp.10-11: I didn’t quite get why the expanded picture of stereotype threat blurs the standard picture’s ‘sharper’ distinction between ‘vanguard’ and ‘rearguard’ students. (Well, I didn’t get either why the standard picture makes this look like a sharp distinction, or why the expander picture makes it look less sharp.) I think probably just a bit more detail is needed at this point.

    1. Thanks to Helen for her comments; I agree that more research and scholarship on how stereotype threat (and many other psychological and social phenomena) influence the demographics of philosophy is an important and interesting area to continue researching.

      Helen asks, How might stereotype threat contribute to epistemic injustice beyond pushing members of marginalized groups away from certain fields of knowledge?

      One way I think it potentially may do is by restricting the potential self-knowledge those individuals could gain. So, if a women is influenced to leave philosophy, in large part because of stereotype threat, it’s not just that this drives her away from philosophical knowledge. It also drives her away from potential self-knowledge. Specifically, she loses the opportunity to find out whether she would have really enjoyed philosophy or not, if there hadn’t been all these pernicious, stress-inducing stereotypes driving her away. Now, we might think, but every decision we make drives us away from something. So in picking one profession, we all lose potential self-knowledge about the other fields we didn’t pick.

      But, this is where marginalization and oppression make a difference. As a woman, there are many areas of self-identity (professional and otherwise) that are made harder for me to explore by these negative stereotypes. So I have even more areas of potential self-knowledge that I am locked out of. Though, that might be too strong a metaphor. Stereotype threat doesn’t necessarily lock us out of an identity. But it makes that identity harder to try on, because doing so makes us feel socially threatened and vulnerable! So stereotype threat makes certain identities more intimidating perhaps, or less welcoming.

      I also want to note, I think this happens to men, too. The identities of being a ballet dancer or an early education teacher are made harder to ‘try on’ for many men. However, oppression still plays a distinct role for women, in that, many of the identities that are made to be more hostile for them are ones that are often highly-valued. So, although the identity of being a primary school teacher is made more hostile for many men, men are also given many more socially-valued identities to try on, instead. (Again, apologies for the delay in posting this response.)

  3. I was wondering if you thought the details of your expanded picture might be able to help with growing concerns about the robustness of ST (https://replicationindex.wordpress.com/tag/stereotype-threat-and-womens-math-performance/ and which Inzlicht himself has expressed doubts about http://michaelinzlicht.com/getting-better/2016/2/29/reckoning-with-the-past). That is, perhaps if researchers adopted new measures pertaining to one’s interest or self-doubt or identity, rather than performance outcomes in domains, it might lead to more reliable effects demonstrating the phenomenon or offer more robust explanations of latent differences we see in those domains. If so, I was wondering if you had any specific suggestions for new measures of those things to best test your hypothesis.

    1. Okay, so yes, this issue of the robustness of stereotype threat is really interesting. I do suspect that if researchers are focusing only on the underperformance effect, that might actually not capture the robustness of the whole phenomenon–even though it seems like it’s the most straightforward and most robust thing to measure.

      But, if there are a significant amount of people who experience stereotype threat, but not its under performance effect, then some replication attempts may make it look like stereotype threat isn’t as robust as it first appeared–because those attempts would be showing that the underperformance effect by itself isn’t as robust as the phenomenon as a whole.

      That said, I want to ultimately defer to the social psychologists on this issue. I have my own hunch about it, but I could be wrong, and I’m not trained in analyzing these experiments in their roles as evidence. Once the psychologists say, “this experiment is evidence for X,” I take X and think about what that implies or entails, given other things that we know.

      I think Claude Steele has a piece that speaks nicely to this potential replication problem. In Flore and Wicherts (2014), they conclude that, although there definitely seems to be some sort of stereotype threat effect, meta-analyses raise doubts about how general that effect is–especially ‘in the wild’ and outside of laboratory settings. Steele discusses some of the reasons why it might be hard to measure the generalizability of stereotype threat in his contribution to Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application (Inzlicht and Schmader 2011). In his chapter, “Extending and Applying Stereotype Threat Research,” he argues that we should think about what sorts of factors moderate stereotype threat’s effect, instead of asking the question of to what degree its effects are generalizeable. He points out,

      “the conditionality of stereotype threat makes the generalization question not very meaningful. Remember, stereotype threat is an intersubjective pressure. It’s caused by situational cues and perhaps by individual dispositions that make the prospect of being negatively stereotyped (or of doing something that would confirm such a stereotype) plausible enough and important enough to be upsetting enough to interfere with a person’s functioning in the setting. This means that in almost any type of real-world setting in which this pressure could be relevant—classrooms, testing rooms, interpersonal interactions, etc.—it is possible to imagine either there being enough stereotype threat–inducing conditions to produce the threat, or few enough to prevent, reduce, or eliminate it. […] That is, whether or not the effect occurs in a real-world setting, and the strength of the effect, should depend on the number and strength of the stereotype threat–inducing cues and conditions in the setting” (299).

      That is, in some sense, we shouldn’t expect stereotype threat effects to be fully generalizable, because they’re highly sensitive to situational cues–ones that could differ from person to person, even if they’re in the same room. And where Steele points to the role that personal dispositions could play, I think that Lauren would point to the role that embodied experience can play, and I would highlight the role that our current arrangement of self-identities could play.

      For instance, Steele himself discusses how the underperformance effect is more likely to arise in people who highly identity with a stereotyped domain. But if another person in, say, that math class, has already written off “math person” as a viable identity for themselves, then they may be more immune to the underperformance effect. (Though their performance may still not be stellar, because they’re not putting in a whole lot of effort.)

      That all said, I’m not sure I have suggestions about which things to measure or how. I guess I would say that the literature on implicit self-identity (e.g. Devos, Huynh, and Banaji 2011–linked below) could be promising. But again, that’s not where my expertise is, so it’s just a hunch I have. There could be all sorts of reasons why that’s a really hard thing to measure for research on stereotype threat.


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