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Defining Stereotype Threat

Question 1- Critically discuss the notion of stereotype threat?

David G Meyers has defined Stereotype threat in his book “Social Psychology” as a disruptive concern that occurs when a person is facing a negative stereotype in life. This stereotype can be evaluated on the basis of the negative stereotype that the person is facing. It is quite unlike the prophecies that are self fulfilling that question one’s reputation regarding one’s stereotype and concept. (Inzlicht, 2006) Inzlicht and others in the year 2006 proved that stereotype threat can be explained by even the prejudice that people can face or feel self conscious about. They explained it through the example of white person living in a black community. They explained how the physical stamina and mental ability is diminished when circumstances that make us self conscious occur. If a person is kept in a situation where other people expect the person to perform poorly and fail. This causes anxiety which may force a person to believe the same that he or she may never succeed. Claude Steele along with his colleagues called this phenomenon as “Stereotype Threat” that is an apprehension that gets self confirmed under a negative stereotype. Claude Steele, Steven Spencer and Diane Quinn in the year 1999 conducted an experiment about a tough math test to women and men who had math background. The people were informed in advance that the test will not be judged on gender differences and any other stereotype. After knowing this the women in the test performed equally in comparison to men. (Adams, 2006)

But when the experiment was repeated with a different set of women who were told that there is a stereotype for “gender difference”, they performed badly in comparison to men. The added apprehension after the tough test questions affected their scores.

gender difference

Paul Davies along with his colleagues was able to prove that the media is capable of provoking stereotype threat as well. (Davies, 2012)He proved it with an experiment by making both women and men watch as set of commercials which they had to memorize. The commercials contained neutral stimuli for half the participants and the other half were shown commercials with “airheaded” women images. After watching the commercials the participants were given a math test. Not only did the women performed badly in comparison to men in “airheaded” commercial group but also reported a loss of interest in obtaining higher education in math or science. Stereotype threat was also successfully proven by Joshua Aronson and Steele in the year 1995 when they gave verbal tests to whites and black participants. The black participants performed badly when they were subjected to stereotype threat. Steele also reported that students tend to perform badly when they are told prior to the tests that there are chances of them to fail the test. This may also result in self esteem issues and loss of interest on education on a whole in some students. He suggested that it is always better to challenge the students thus helping them to believe in their potential.

Experiments that Prove Stereotype Threat

Chad Forbes, Topni Schmader and Michael Johns in the year 2008 explained how stereotype threat affects performance. There are three ways in which the stereotype threat undermines performance:-

  • Self monitoring:- many scholars including Forster and Seibt in the year 2004 and Dauenheimer and Keller in the year 2003 have proved that when an individual is subjected to stereotype threat they tend to worry about making mistakes. There are not focused in their work and their attention is disrupted regularly due to this self monitoring.
  • Stress:-many researchers like Derks and his colleagues in the year 2008, Krendl and his colleagues in the year 2008 and Wraga and his colleagues in the year 2007 have proven that stress that is caused by a stereotype threat causes impairing brain activity. MRI scans have shown that under stress from a stereotype threat the areas of the brain that process emotion are highly active and brain activity in the mathematical processing area is impaired.
  • Suppressing unwanted emotions and thoughts:-Croizet and Bonnot in the year 2007 proved that thoughts and memory are disrupted when an individual tries to regulate one’s thinking.

Research related to stereotype threat was not limited to the negative impact of it but it was also thought that if negative stereotype threat can affect performance in a negative way. Can positive stereotypes enhance performances? Nalini Ambady alon with Margaret Shih and Todd Pittinsky conducted an experiment to confirm it. They took two groups of Asian American females in which one was a control group whereas the other consisted of females that were asked some biological questions. The biological questions were asked to them to remind them of their gender identity after which their performance plunged in the tests. To prove positive stereotype the researchers reminded them of their Asian identity which helped them to score well in the tests. Rydell along with his colleagues proved that positive stereotypes facilitate performance and negative stereotypes have a disruptive affect on performance. Felicio and Miller in the year 1990 studied about stereotype bias judgments in people. They found out that relevant and strong stereotype do affect the judgments of people. Melvin Manis, Monica Biernat and Thomas Nelson in their study proved that when students were asked about the estimated heights of many men and women. All of them perceived men height to be more than the women. It was noted that even when the height of both men and women were the same they perceived that men were taller. A follow up study that was conducted by Manis, Nelson, and Michele Acker in the year 1996 showed the pictures of some of the students of University of Michigan from nursing and engineering to other students. In these pictures the interests of each student were listed as well. the students who were viewing the pictures were informed that the number of males and female students are the same. But many students associated the nursing student with a female student face. This proved that strong gender stereotype is a irresistible force.

Human beings are social creatures that are destined to bond with one another. This need to bind is adaptive. Survival is dependent on cooperation, which is essential for any species to survive. When we are babies we prefer familiar faces over strangers. We smile and coo on familiar voices and attention. At the tender age of eight months a baby starts to crawl towards its mother and father. They wail and cry when they are separated from them. The parents who are the caregivers share a strong bond or social attachment with the baby that serves as a survival impulse. Our attachment style affects everything in our life whether it be our selection of our life partner or how well relationship will work.

Leonard M. Horowitz and Kim Bartholomew gave the attachment theory that states that attachment relationship continue to be essential throughout our lives. (Bartholomew, 1991) But Horowitz and Bartholomew proved that if an individual abstract self image is negative or positive them the abstracted image will be negative or positive as well. When we are an infant our bond and attachments towards others strengthens our human bonds. (Bowlby, 1988) John Bowlby in the year 1980 reflected that intimate attachments to others are the hub around which an individual life revolves around.

Positive Stereotypes and their Impact

attachment with caretakers

Some of the attachments styles are:-

  • Secure attachments:-this type of attachment is rooted in trust and is marked by intimacy. Researchers like Cunningham and Jones in the year 1996 proved that infants even in strange situation if in their mother’s presence exhibit a comfortable demeanor but if the mother is asked to leave. They become sad and distressed it is only when the mother returns back that the child relaxes and starts playing again. This attachment style that is based on trust is called as secure attachment. It forms a kind of working model that is based on intimacy that helps in sustaining relationships even through times of conflict. When an infant who has had a secure relationship with others grow into an adult, they tend to enjoy relationship in a committed and secure way. (Ein-Dor, 2010)Their relationships tend to be enduring and satisfying. Securely attached individuals are more satisfied with their lifetime relationships. As children they have seen their parent as a secure base that helps them to independently venture in the world and explore it. These individuals grow into adults that are supportive for their partners and are comforting when they see that their partner is disturbed. They form relationships that are open, equal and honest.


The model that Leonard M. Horowitz and Kim Bartholomew gave was based on the fact that how an individual sees oneself i.e his self image.

  • Preoccupied attachment style:- which is also called as Anxious Ambivalent is about having positive expectations for others along with the sense of one’s own unworthiness. As seen in some infants who tend to cling to their mothers. They will cry and wail if the mother leaves but even when she returns they may be hostile and indifferent. These infants grow into adults that are more possessive and less trusting. They get jealous easily. (Cassidy, 2000) Cassidy in the year 2000 proved that these individuals get angry and emotional when discussing a conflict. In contrast to others who support and acknowledge other’s freedom. These individual are desperate to form a fantasy bond with others. They feel emotional hunger instead of feeling trust and love for their partner. They feel security and safety by clinging to their partners. They act insecure and desperate as their behavior show their fears. They are clingy, possessive and demanding as they feel unsure of the feelings of their partner. (Crisp, 2009)
  • Dismissive attachment style:- infants with this type of attachment show little distress when separated from their mothers. They do not cling to their mothers even when they return after a period of separation. These infants tend to grow into adults that exhibit negative views about others. These avoidant type of people are not interested in relationships and engage in meaningless sex without love. They have a distrust for others and thus they avoid being in relationship (Etcheverry, 2005). They lead a more inward life as they deny the existence of loved ones and detach from them. They easily shut down emotionally and are psychologically defended.
  • Fearful attachment style:-the individual that have this type of attachment style are fearful of intimacy and are socially avoidant. They commonly use sentences like “ I keep my options open” and “I am not comfortable in getting too close to people”. They have strong dependency on others in order to maintain their positive self image. But they usually differ in their attempt to be a part of a close relationship. (Lanciano, 2012)This tendency is based on their fear of rejection. They often get overwhelmed by their feelings and are unpredictable. They often end up in dramatic and rocky relationships which have many highs and lows.

According to a study by the world health organisation when a child or infant is deprived of familiar attachments they become silent, frightened and withdrawn. This has been experienced with kids that go through extreme neglect. Some elements are common in all loving relationships and attachments. Some of these elements are giving support, mutual understanding, receiving support, and valuing support. Passionate love is different as it has other features as intense fascination, physical affection and exclusiveness. But this passionate love is not just for the lovers as according to a study by Phillip Shaver and his colleagues. The one year old infants that were studied expressed and welcomed physical affection like lovers. They felt distressed when they were separated from their parents. They even showed intense affection when they were reunited with their parents.

In social psychology the physical and mental well being is a major topic. Close relationships that are supportive and give a feeling of encouragement, affirmative and likeness are good for health. Jean Paul Sartre has said that “Hell is others” and all our relationships are filled with stress. Many times stress caused by family issues leads to numerous health problems. Many diseases like hypertension, coronary heart disease and immune system failure are caused by stress. (Robinson, 1999)Singer and Ryff in the year 2000 have talked about close relationships and its relationship with health. Lonely people tend to suffer with more health ailments as they experience stress. Research has shown that people who have close relationship with friends and family are less likely to die prematurely. (Ryff, 2000) The people who are relationship oriented, affectionate and outgoing have more friends and are more likely to be healthy. (Cohen, 2003)According to a study by Cohen and his colleagues in the year 2003 people who were more affectionate and outgoing did not catch cold virus in comparison to people who were introvert and were less affectionate. Studies have shown that married people live longer in comparison to unmarried people. They are also healthier irrespective of their income, age, sex or race.

Coan and his colleagues conducted an experiment on people who were married in a supportive and happy marriage. When the married women were subjected to threat of shocks through electric ankle shocks some were allowed to hold their husbands hand. These women’s MRI scans showed that the threat responsive area in their brains was less active in comparison to women who were asked to hold hands of strangers. These results were consistent to the belief that supportive relationships are conductive of good health. It is not only about receiving support from others but giving support to others is equally essential. In a study conducted on 423 couples who were married proved that

rate of colds

Married couples showed that those who provided social support had greater longevity. A finish study conducted on ninety six thousand widowed women showed that their risk of death increased to double in only a week after their partner’s death. So from all this data we know that there is a link between health and close relationship. People who have close relationships exercise more, drink and smoke less and eat better. But why this happens is it that family and friends bolster our confidence and self esteem. Or a supportive network is helping us to overcome stress. More than eighty studies have shown that people who have supportive close relationships enjoy strong immune system and good cardiovascular functioning. In a study conducted by Robin O’Heeron and James Pennebaker on surviving spouses of car accident and suicide victims showed that those who confided their grief with friends and relatives had less health problems. But the ones who kept their grief and sadness to themselves had many health issues on the near future. He even tried to isolate the confessional and confiding side of close relationships as he asked the spouses to relate to the sad events that are on their mind. Many of them who talked about the event stayed tense until they confided the event. Many confided that they were feeling better by talking about it and blocking it was not helping them.


Adams, G. G. (2006). The detrimental effects of a suggestion of sexism in an instruction situation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology , 602–615.

Bartholomew, K. &. (1991). attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 226-244.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

Cassidy, J. (2000). Adult romantic attachments: A developmental perspective on individual differences. Review of General Psychology , 111-131.

Cohen, S. D. (2003). Sociability and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychological Science , 389–395.

Crisp, R. J. (2009). Interpersonal attachment predicts identification with groups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology , 115-122.

Davies, P. G. (2012). Consuming images: How television commercialsthat elicit stereotype threat can restrain women academically and professionally. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 1615–1628.

Ein-Dor, T. M. (2010). The attachment paradox: How can so many of us (the insecure ones) have no adaptive advantages? . Perspectives on Psychological Science , 123-141.

Etcheverry, P. E. (2005). Thinking about commitment: Accessibility of commitment and prediction of relationship persistence, accommodation, and willingness to sacrifice. Personal Relationships , 103-123.

Inzlicht, M. M. (2006). Stigma as ego depletion: How being the target of prejudice affects self-control. Psychological Science , 262–269.

Lanciano, T. C. (2012). attachment and dysfunctional rumination: The mediating role of Emotional Intelligence abilities. Personality and Individual Differences , 753-758.

Robinson, M. D. (1999). The role of self-deception in perceptions of past, present, and future happiness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 595–606.

Ryff, C. D. (2000). Interpersonal flourishing: A positive health agenda for the new millennium. Personality and Social Psychology Review , 30–44.

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