Stereotype threat

Reduce stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is a psychological mechanism in which a person’s performance in a task is inhibited by the prevalence of a negative stereotype about their group in that domain. Concerns about confirming a negative stereotype reduce performance, especially when minority status, group identity, and the stereotype are more salient.


Steele & Aronson (1995) found that “Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.”

Aronson, Fried, & Good (2002) produced evidence that “encouraging students to see intelligence as malleable (i.e., embrace an incremental theory of intelligence) can raise enjoyment and performance in academic contexts.” In their experiment, college students in the treatment group learned an incremental theory of intelligence and wrote a letter explaining the theory to a low-performing middle school pen pal. “The African American students (and, to some degree, the White students) encouraged to view intelligence as malleable reported greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts in two control groups.”

Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, & Mitchell (2004) showed that “individuation (priming an individual to recall their distinct interests and abilities) can serve as a buffer against stereotype threat, perhaps because it allows a means for individuals to distance the self from identities linked to the stereotype in question.”

Stereotype threat in economics

Psychologists have explored stereotype threat extensively and have documented its effects in a wide range of contexts, with a special focus on the harm of stereotypes for racial minorities in academic settings and for women in STEM, though not in economics specifically. Economists infrequently, but increasingly, consider stereotype threat; as of June 2021, forty publications show up in an Econlit search for “stereotype threat” as opposed to just ten in May 2012.

Günther, Ekincib, Schwieren, and Strobel (2010) find that stereotype threat can explain gender differences in responses to competitive incentives. Women respond less when the task used in experiments is considered a male task, but in gender-neutral tasks women react as strongly to incentives as men and in female tasks women react stronger than men. “Women tend not to compete with men in areas where they (rightly or wrongly) think that they will lose anyway – and the same holds for men.” These findings could be linked to the performance of women in the economics classroom: since the field of economics is perceived as a “male” field, women may underperform or be discouraged due to the perception that they do not belong.

Dee (2014) “presents an economic model of stereotype threat [as well as] empirical evidence from a laboratory experiment in which students at a selective college were randomly assigned to a treatment that primed their awareness of a stereotyped identity (i.e., student-athlete). This treatment reduced the test-score performance of athletes relative to non-athletes by 14 percent (effect size = -1.0).”

Cited works

Dee, T. S. (2014). Stereotype threat and the student‐athlete. Economic Inquiry, 52(1), 173-182.

Günther, C., Ekinci, N. A., Schwieren, C., & Strobel, M. (2010). Women can’t jump?—An experiment on competitive attitudes and stereotype threat. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 75(3), 395-401.