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The problem with negative stereotypes

The devastating effect that negative stereotyping can have on people’s sense of themselves and their abilities has been known for decades now. One world famous study was carried out in 1968 by Jane Elliott who had been greatly affected by the assassination of Martin Luther King. She wanted to teach her 8 and 9 year olds about the damaging effects of stereotypes. She told them that scientists had discovered that blue-eyed people were much more intelligent and hard-working than brown-eyed people who were lazier and tended to be stupid. She then divided the class into the two eye colours and gave more praise and attention to the blue-eyed children. Within hours she could see that this classification was affecting performance in class. The blue-eye children were working harder and achieving higher grades of work; for brown eyes the opposite was true. There were also effects out of the classroom. The blue eyed youngsters adopted superior ways and were taunting their brown-eyed peers. Jane Elliott then told the class that she had made a mistake – it was brown eyed people who were clever and hard-working. The effects on the children then reversed in line with the stereotypes she had given them.

Other research has also shown how children’s performance is greatly affected by the views of others and their expectations. This is often known as the ‘Pygmalion effect’ after the play by George Bernard Shaw. It occurs when people internalise the views – either positive or negative – of people they see as superiors. (1)

Social psychologists have been interested in how individuals' views of themselves is constructed by their relationships with others since the 1970s. In the 1990s these social identity theorists began to talk about 'stereotype threat'.  A number of important studies were carried out by two of these theorists, Claude Steel and Joshua Aronson. (2) For example, one showed how high-achieving African American students were less likely to perform well on tests when they thought the test was measing intelligence. 

Given how affected we are by others’ views it is easy to see why racial, class, age or gender stereotypes should have such a negative effect. Researchers speculate that stereotyping can reduce performance because it is perceived as a threat and so undermines performance. Anxiety, such as that induced by exams, can aid performance on simple tasks but is well-known to undermine more complex activities where real concentration is required. Psychologists talk about this as 'cognitive load'.

The negative effect of stereotyping need not take place at a conscious level. Indeed researchers have shown how this can operate almost unconsciously.  So, for example, if girls are asked to register their gender before a maths exam this can trigger at a deep level the stereotype that girls are not as good at maths than boys and this can then effect their performance.


1. Jussim, L. and Harber, KD (2005) "Teacher Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Knows and Unknowns, Resolved and Unresolved Controversies." Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(2), 131-155

2. Aronson, J. & Steele, C.M. (2005). Stereotypes and the fragility of human competence, motivation, and self-concept. In C. Dweck & E. Elliot (Eds.), Handbook of Competence & Motivation. New York, Guilford.

Aronson, J. & Inzlicht, M. (2004). The ups and downs of attributional ambiguity: Stereotype vulnerability and the academic self-knowledge of African-American students. Psychological Science, 15, 12, 829-836.

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can't do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29-46.

Aronson, J. , Fried, C. & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 38, 113-125.

Aronson, J., Steele, C. M., Salinas, M. F. Lustina, M. J. (1998). The effects of stereotype threat on the standardized test performance of college students. In E. Aronson, (Ed.), Readings About the Social Animal (8th edition). New York: Freeman.

Steele, C. M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69(5), 797-811.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). How stereotypes influence the standardized test performance of talented African American students. In C. Jencks & M. Phillips (Eds.), The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institution, 401-427.

Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C (2008) An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance, Psychological Review, 115(2), 336-56.

Cadinu, M., Maass, A ., Roasbianca, A & Kiesner, J (2005) Why do women underperform under stereotype threat? Evidence for the role of negative thinking. Psychological Science, 16(7) 572-8.

O'Brien, L. T & Crandall, C. S. (2003) Stereotype threat and arousal: effects on women's maths performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(6) 782-9.

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