Strategies for Overcoming Stereotype ThreatIn the April/May issue of Scientific American Mind, S. Alexander Haslam (professor of social psychology at the University of Exeter, England). Jessica Salvatore (postdoc at Exeter), Thomas Kessler (professor of social psychology at Exeter), and Stephen D. Reicher (professor of social psychology at St. Andrews, Scotland) explain the phenomenon of "stereotype threat" and outline strategies for dealing with it.
Stereotype threat arises in situations in which a negative stereotype, such as the notion that blacks are inferior to whites, is applicable. In such a situation, a member of the low-status group is at risk of confirming the stereotype as a self-characterization, both to himself/herself and to others who know the stereotype. For example, if you're black and you know that blacks are considered weak in math, you are at risk of doing worse on math tests than your actual ability would dictate.
The authors explain that the anxiety, self-consciousness and self-doubt which arise "when the content of a salient social identity conflicts with a person's motivations to do well in a given domain (to be good at math, for instance)" can be alleviated by three strategies. Which strategy is applicable depends on:
- Whether or not individuals in a particular low-status group can leave the group.
- If individuals cannot leave the low-status group, whether or not the low status is firmly in place.
High ability to leave low-status group Take advantage of opportunities for individual social mobility. This strategy is a workaround the problem of the prevailing stereotype is not addressed.
Low ability to leave low-status group, and group's low status is firmly in place Assert "I'm different," i.e., "I don't fit the stereotype." This strategy, like the first, is a workaround.
Low ability to leave low-status group, but group's low status is not firmly in place Engage in group resistance, i.e., assert "We are not inferior." This strategy is not a workaround; rather, stereotype threat is diminished or, best case, eliminated. This tack is the one adopted by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose assassination 40 years ago we are marking today.
Haslam, Salvatore, Kessler, and Reicher close by highlighting the two lessons to be derived from the literature on stereotype threat:
- "[B]eware of equating performance and ability, especially when dealing with differences between groups, and ... understand the power that the expectations of others [have] over what we do."
- "[W]e are not doomed to be victims of oppressive stereotypes but can learn to use stereotypes as tools of our own liberation. In short, who we think we are determines both how we perform and what we are able to become."