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How stereotypes affect us and what can be done about it
Coert Visser

In Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us social psychologist Claude Steele writes about the work he and his colleagues have done on a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category (one's age, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, profession, nationality, political affiliation, mental health status, etc.)

Briefly, how stereotype threat works is as follows: you know your group identity and you know how society views it. You are aware that you are doing a task for which that view is relevant. You know, at some level, that you are in a predicament: your performance could confirm a bad view of your group and of yourself as a member of that group. You may not consciously feel anxious but your blood pressure rises and you begin to sweat. Your thinking changes. Your mind starts to race: you become vigilant to all things relevant to the threat and to what your chances of avoiding it are. You get some self-doubts and start to worry about how warranted the stereotype is. You start to constantly monitor how well you are doing. You try hard to suppress threatening thoughts about not doing well or about the negative consequences of possibly failing. While you are having all of these thoughts you are distracted from the task at hand and your concentration and working memory suffer.

Does it allways happen? No. There is only one prerequisite for stereotype threat to happen: the person in question must care for the performance in question. That is what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance.

Can something be done about it? Yes. The hopeful news is that there are some rather small interventions which can help a lot. Experiments have shown that subtly removing or preventing stereotype threats can completely or largely eliminate performance gaps between stereotyped groups and non-stereotyped groups. Some examples of interventions which are often helpful to prevent the negative consequences of stereotype threat are: 1) make it clear in the way you give critical feedback that you use high standards and let the person know that you expect him or her to be able to eventually succeed, 2) improve the number of people from the social category in the setting so that a critical mass is reached, 3) make it clear that you value diversity, 4) foster intergroup conversations and frame these as a learning experience, 5) allow the stereotyped individuals to use self-affirmations, 6) help the stereotyped individuals to develop a narrative about the setting that explains their frustrations while projecting positive engagement and success in the setting.


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