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Understanding Stereotype Threat

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety or stress in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group. Studies show that stereotype threat undermines intellectual (and other forms of) performance, causing stereotyped students to perform below their capabilities.

Research has documented many examples of stereotype threat, including these:

  • Asked to indicate their gender at the beginning of a math test, female college students do more poorly than females who are not asked to indicate their gender.
  • High-achieving white male college students do more poorly on a math test if they are told the test is used to determine why Asian students are superior in mathematics.
  • Told that a test measures natural athletic ability, African-American males outperformed white males.  Told that the test measures sports strategic intelligence, white males outperformed African-American males.
  • Told that a test measures language ability, college students from a lower-class background perform more poorly than upper-class students.
  • Older adults who read a newspaper account of how aging impairs memory did more poorly on a memory test than those who had not read the story.

Summary of Research

UWL hosted stereotype-threat researcher Valerie Purdie-Vaughns in 2013:

Stereotype Threat and the Psychology of Achievement Gaps: Causes and Solutions to Student Underperformance
Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (now Valerie Purdie Greenaway), Columbia University(introduced by Bill Cerbin)

This address uses the psychologist’s toolbox to understand why certain schools and workplaces cause students to underperform relative to their potential and what interventions combat underperformance. Environments like work or school can trigger stereotype threat for students from under-represented groups – an added stress from the possibility of being seen through the lens of negative stereotypes, rather than being accepted equally as individuals. The cumulative toll of contending with such a threat, repeatedly and over long periods of time, can threaten students’ sense that they can meet the demands of the environment. Performance and health can suffer as a consequence. This framework helps to explain intergroup disparities across a wide range of outcomes, including education (e.g., gender and racial achievement gaps) and health (e.g., racial health disparities) that have tended to be studied in isolation. This framework also provides concrete strategies for psychological interventions that target stress associated with stereotypes and bias. When well-timed and supported by environmental structures, these strategies help buffer students against the cumulative costs of stereotype threat.

Biographical Information:
Valerie Purdie-Vaughns is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Columbia University. Previously she served on the faculty at Yale University. She graduated from Columbia University in 1993 and completed her doctorate at Stanford University in 2004 as a student of Dr. Claude Steele. Dr. Purdie-Vaughns is an expert on racial and gender achievement gaps in academic and workplace settings and how stigma undermines intellectual performance. She also conducts research on other forms of stigma including: stigma and LGBTQ groups, stigma of mental illness, and stigma based on multiple identities (intersectionality). Valerie has authored numerous publications that have appeared in journals such as Science, Psychological Science, and the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. She has been awarded grants from the National Science Foundation, W.T. Grant Foundation and the Department of Education. She is also a regular guest on National Public Radio (NPR) as a psychology consultant on The Takeaway. As a true believer in the power of psychology to effect social change she regularly consults with universities, corporations and federal agencies about how diversity works “on the ground.”


Talking directly to students about stereotype threat is counterproductive. Instead, researchers have developed, over the past several years, types of brief interventions–some as brief as 15 minutes–that can have striking effects on students’ achievement. These are not teaching strategies, but instead, social psychological interventions that focus on how students think about themselves and school. They are intended to reduce barriers that impede student achievement. Each of the following videos describes one such intervention.

Part 1 is about Values Affirmation and describes how simple values affirmation exercises can have a positive effect on student achievement. Before a course, students simply write about values that are important to them. Their achievement improves more than that of students who do not write about their values.

Part 2 focuses on Social Belonging and describes a study in which students participated in several exercises that improved their sense of belonging in school. The intervention had long-term positive effects on their academic achievement.

And, Part 3 is about Attribution Training which describes how it is possible to change the way students think about their own success and failure. This, in turn, has a positive effect on their achievement.


Steele, C. M. (2018). "How Stereotypes Can Impact School Performance with guest Claude Steele." 28 minute interview on Stanford Radio.

Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi : How stereotypes affect us and what we can do.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.  conjunction with Prof. Purdie-Vaughns' visit, CATL and UW System's Office of Professional and Instructional Development (OPID) distributed multiple copies of Steele's book for reading groups, so copies are widely available on campus.  Here are the discussion questions prepared by CATL (feel free to choose those most interesting to your group).  Here is a brief glossary of psychology terms used in the book

Tough, P. (May 14, 2014) Who Gets to Graduate? The New York Times. 

Willingham, D. (11/11/2013).  What’s behind stereotype threat?

Wilson, T. D. (2011).  It’s About Me, Not My Group: Closing the Achievement Gap. Redirect: The Surprising Science of Psychological Change  New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Hoskins, D. (2016). Stereotype threat. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Updated Nov. 2019.