I’ve spent a great deal of time helping to unravel the thought processes of those who struggle with depression and anxiety. Many of my clients have struggled with these issues as they’ve transitioned into undergraduate college, graduate school or early careers. Mostly late adolescents and young adults, they’re diligently working towards long-term goals that they’ve associated with success. They never thought this process would be easy and were expecting to exert their maximum effort. Unfortunately, many of them have experienced setbacks that have triggered the symptoms that brought them to my office.

At this point I’ve described many college students and graduates who’ve struggled to cope with a variety of stressful situations. However, within this group of hardworking high-achievers are those who are underrepresented in their courses of study. This is to say that people of their gender, race or socio-economic status (SES) are scarce in their classes and future professions. They are scarce and largely absent from our public perception of successful people in their chosen paths. The scarcity of women and minorities in certain fields did not occur by chance.  Most of us who understand American history are aware that excluding women and minorities from many opportunities was the norm until the latter decades of the 20th century. Despite the passing of laws prohibiting discrimination, obstacles still exist today. Studies have shown that those who are underrepresented are well aware of the exclusion of their predecessors.  They are also aware of longstanding negative stereotypes that for centuries, had been the justifications for previous policies of exclusion. In fact, those of underrepresented groups are often more aware of negative stereotypes against them than those of the majority, who only need to focus on the normal challenges associated with their career paths.  To be clear, my intention is not to diminish the struggles that those of the majority face when extremely high expectations are placed on them. But we must acknowledge that there are many women and people of color who could only wish that higher expectations were placed on their success in historically underrepresented fields.

The Discovery of Stereotype Threat and Its Influence on Academic Performance:

The term “Stereotype Threat” was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995), who showed in several experiments that African-American students would perform poorly on standardized tests when compared to white students, only when their race was emphasized prior to taking the tests. When their race was not emphasized, African-American students performed either within a similar range or higher than white students. Since Steele and Aronson’s 1995 study, there have been hundreds of similar studies revealing that Stereotype Threat is not limited to groups of people based on their race. For example, several studies have found that women perform poorly on mathematics assessments when compared to men only when they are reminded of gender-based stereotypes that women underperform in mathematics. Students from lower SES have performed poorly on standardized tests when compared to those with higher SES when they were reminded of stereotypes associated with their low SES (Harrison et al., 2006).

When discussing Stereotype Threat, I’m often asked about the differences between anxiety experienced by underrepresented groups from Stereotype Threat and the anxiety experienced by anyone else in a similar situation. The most notable distinction with Stereotype Threat is that those who experience it have an intense fear of underperforming AND confirming a negative stereotype about their group. Some people have fears about academic underperformance for a variety of reasons. Many students, for example, may fear taking math classes because they have a history of struggling in similar classes. But just imagine how a high-achieving female or African-American student could have an intense fear of underperforming on a standardized assessment, even though it assesses all of the academic areas where they’ve been successful in the past. The former example of anxiety is based on a history of negative outcomes when attempting a task. This is a feeling experienced by many individuals who have previously failed at a task. The latter example involves a student who is experiencing the weight of implicit and explicit messages that they are incapable of achieving in the same way as most students. They have been exposed to these messages from a variety of sources throughout their lives. However, their previous achievement contradicts these stereotypes. Yet in both situations, the way our minds and bodies react to anxiety are similar. Physiologically, there are changes in body temperature, heart rate and digestion. Thought processes and decision-making are also affected. Several studies have found declines in working memory and decision-making when individuals experience Stereotype Threat (Schmader et al., 2009). These are the actual reasons for underperformance.

It should be no surprise that underperformance due to Stereotype Threat can take a toll on a student’s self-esteem, confidence and motivation. Repeated underperformance on high-stakes tests like the SAT, MCAT, GRE or LSAT can lead to admissions denials from competitive programs. These denials are particularly damaging for high-achieving adolescents and young adults, who may have never faced these kinds of setbacks. It’s important to note that there is no evidence suggesting that Stereotype Threat alone causes a mental health condition. Many of my previous clients with mood and anxiety disorders have experienced Stereotype Threat in addition to other factors that triggered their symptoms.

Ways for Individuals to Reduce Stereotype Threat:

Those who’ve experienced Stereotype Threat and require outpatient mental health treatment are unique and have a unique set of needs. They are often women, people of color and/or from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. With little or no prompting, they will recall being subjected to negative stereotypes about their intellectual abilities, values and motivation. Most noteworthy has been a lack of awareness of how often their previous accomplishments have undermined all of these stereotypes.

Studies have revealed several interventions for reducing Stereotype Threat. However, many of them call on educators and other professionals to be aware and make changes to how they provide instruction. While I will always advocate for educators to raise awareness and provide appropriate interventions, I’d like to focus on those that will help individuals take control of their thoughts, behaviors and outcomes. In addition to Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, I routinely offer these interventions for those who struggle with Stereotype Threat:

  • Psychoeducation: Just having an understanding of Stereotype Threat alone can reduce its effects. After reading many of the studies involving students like themselves, clients develop a better understanding of their previous experiences, thought processes and most importantly, patterns of success that they may have dismissed or minimized. After learning about Stereotype Threat, clients often feel enlightened and willing to educate others in similar circumstances.

 

  • Values Affirmation (Harackiewicz, 2014): Values affirmation interventions reduce Stereotype Threat by affirming all of a client’s key values that have contributed to his or her previous academic successes. These are writing exercises performed prior to high stakes tests that involve listing and describing a client’s values that are most important to them. Studies have shown that Values Affirmation exercises reduced in cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress-related hormone) and self-reported stress in samples of students.

 

  • Social Belonging (Walton & Cohen 2007; Walton & Cohen 2011): Individuals are likely to experience Stereotype Threat when they feel that they don’t belong socially in a setting. If they experience academic hardship, then the idea of not belonging is reinforced. To combat these feelings, it’s important to help clients identify themselves as being part of a group where both success and challenges are common, regardless of their gender, race or economic status. A typical example involves underrepresented women and minority students pursuing STEM majors. Engineering, for example, is among the most challenging of undergraduate majors at most universities. Those with engineering degrees would argue that some level of academic struggle is common for them. When underrepresented students perceive themselves to be part of group of engineering students facing similar struggles, Stereotype Threat is reduced. Many clients are surprised to find that their symptoms of anxiety and distress are reduced after they join a group that faces similar challenges.

 

To learn more about Stereotype Threat and best practices to reduce Stereotype Threat in classrooms, please visit www.reducestereotypethreat.org.

References

Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Giffen, C. J., Blair, S. S., Rouse, D. I., & Hyde, J. S. (2014).Closing the social class achievement gap for first-generation students in undergraduate biology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 375-389. doi: 10.1037/a0034679.

 Harrison, L. A., Stevens, C. M., Monty, A. N., & Coakley, C. A. (2006). The consequences of stereotype threat on the academic performance of white and non-white lower income college students. Social Psychology of Education, 9, 341-357.

Schmader, T., Forbes, C.E., Zhang, S. & Mendes, W.B. (2009). A Metacognitive perspective on cognitive deficits experienced in intellectually threatening environments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (5), 584- 596. doi: 10.1177/0146167208330450.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.82.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science, 331, 1447 – 1451.