In 1995, Claude Steele and Josh Aronsona published an influential article in which they demonstrated a phenomenon they called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when people feel that they might be judged in terms of a negative stereotype or that they might do something that might inadvertently confirm a stereotype about their group.
When any of us find ourselves in a difficult performance situation, especially one that has time pressure involved, we might recognize that if we do poorly, others could think badly about our own individual abilities. But if you are a woman or minority-group student trying to excel in science, there is the added worry that poor performance could be taken as confirmation that group stereotypes are valid.
In their first series of studies, Steele and Aronson set out to ask whether you could change a minority-group student’s ability to perform on a difficult intellectual task by simply changing the context, for example, how the task is described. They had white and black college students at Stanford University come into a laboratory to complete a set of difficult questions taken from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Half the participants were told that the test would measure verbal ability—the same kinds of instructions that students might expect to get before taking the GRE. They found the same type of race gap in test scores that is often seen on standardized tests. For a second group of students, the same task was described as a laboratory exercise. Under these more neutral conditions—in which no reference was made to race, ability, or a test—African American students performed significantly better; their performance was not different from that of their white peers.
differences in ability. If differences in ability explained the gender gap or the race gap, as least with these kinds of samples, it should not be so easy to erase or reduce that gap by simply changing how the test is described.
We know that contextual cues, such as how a test is described, can be one type of variable that can lead to stereotype threat. Research suggests that other types of situational cues that can lead to the same processes. For example, something that merely reminds people of their gender or race can be enough to produce