Consequences for individuals
Stereotype threat has many negative effects on students’ lives, including academic identification, academic performance, professional identity and aspirations, and even their behavior and health.
Academic identification (Steele, 1997) is formed as one starts to identify with different aspects of schooling. One of the most important domains of academic identification is self-evaluation, in that based on their experiences in school, students start to make choices and assess what role academics may play in their lives. If a student’s self-assessments are positive, their academic identification is also favorable. On the other hand, if a student’s self-assessments are negative, their academic identification is less favorable.
When an individual experiences stereotype threat, their self-evaluation and assessments are unfavorable, resulting in a negative academic identification. Take, for instance, a student who belongs to a racial group that has a negative stereotype associated with it. In certain situations, the student may experience a fear of conforming to this negative stereotype and experience what Cross (1991) describes as “spotlight anxiety,” leading to a poor experience. This, in turn, could negatively impact their academic identification.
Academic performance is another area that can be affected by stereotype threat, whether it’s test performance, classroom participation, or performance in specific subjects.
Caucasians, for instance, have experienced negative stereotyping in the sense that it’s often said that they have inferior mathematical skills than Asians. However, Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele, and Brown (1999) argue that Caucasians’ underperformance in mathematics could be due to stereotype threat.
In a 1999 study (Aronson, et al.), Caucasian males were given a very challenging mathematics test from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Before taking the test, one group of students was told that Asian students performed much better than Caucasian students in math. In the other group, there was no mention of any race-based performance differences.
The Caucasian students who were made aware of this stereotype performed significantly worse than the group of students who were not told of this stereotypes. Aronson et al. (1999) suggest that when students are aware of negative stereotypes, and self-identify with the stereotype, they are more likely to conform to this stereotype, even if this means performing below their abilities.
Stereotype threat can also affect a student’s professional identity and aspirations. For example, women may think of changing their major if they feel discriminated against in male-dominated fields like mathematics or science (Steele, James, ; Barnett, 2002). Even if female students believe they are as intellectually capable as their male peers, negative stereotypes can affect their interest in pursuing a career in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Furthermore, stereotype threat can have lingering effects on individuals’ behaviors and health, affecting their lives beyond academic performance. The most basic one is stress (Inzlicht, Tullett, Legault & Kang, 2011). Chronic stress can contribute to increased anxiety, lowered performance expectations, reduced persistence and effort, reduced self-control, reduced memorization capacity, and reduced physical abilities.
These stressors could affect other aspects of students’ lives too, from their eating habits, to physical endurance and aggression, self-control, and decision-making skills (Inzlicht et al., 2011). Inzlicht et al. (2011), describe this as stereotype threat spillover.
For instance, eating healthily requires a degree of impulse control. However, when a student is dealing with stereotype threat, their resources for self-regulation may be used to overcome anxieties, resulting in depleted resources for regulating their eating habits. Among Muslims for instance, those who believed that there was discrimination and prejudice against their ethnic group were less successful in regulating their behavior, and found to be more overweight (Inzlicht et al. 2011). This suggests that stereotype threat spillover can indeed affect other areas of students’ lives.
The stress of dealing with stereotype threat can also affect students’ physical endurance and aggression (Inzlicht, Aronson, Good, ; Mckay, 2006). Given that students only have a limited amount of physical and mental resources to spare, a student may experience a decrease in physical endurance and increase in aggression after devoting much of these resources to dealing with stereotype threat. For example, when women exercised after taking a math diagnostic test, they had less physical endurance than when they took a verbal diagnostic test (Inzlicht et al., 2006). In addition, after putting in the effort to cope with stereotype threat during these tests, the women were found to be more antagonistic towards their partners (Inzlicht et al., 2006).
Self-control is another area that can be impacted by stereotype threat, in that stereotype threat is highly correlated with the brain systems that are associated with self-control (Inzlicht ; Kang, 2010). After African American students were given a diagnostic test, they were given a Stroop color-naming activity (Steele ; Aronson, 1995). This task required students to name the color of the font used to spell the presented words, rather than the word that the letters actually spelled out. This task forced students to control their natural impulse to read the word and instead name the color of the word’s letters. Steele and Aronson (1995) found that the African American students had a harder time controlling their natural impulse to read the words than their Caucasian peers, when completing this task after a taxing diagnostic test.
Lastly, stereotype threat influences students’ decision-making skills. When individuals experience stereotype threat, they tend to make decisions that are impulsive and irrational. In one study, participants were asked to write down incidents in which they felt discriminated or prejudiced against, with regards to race, gender, religion, or age (Inzlicht ; Kang, 2010). Then, participants were given a choice of picking between a safer, but lower return lottery versus a riskier, but higher return lottery. Participants were more likely to pick the riskier, higher return option rather than the safer, lower return option, suggesting that stereotype threat can affect one’s ability to make rational, smart choices (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010).
Consequences for higher education and society in general
Clearly, there are significant consequences for students who experience stereotype threat. However, the consequences of stereotype threat go beyond the individual level, as they can impact the performance of higher education institutions, and society in general.
The mission of higher education is to provide an education to all people regardless of race, gender, age, religion, etc., and to prepare them to contribute to the betterment of society. However, despite the continuous effort to provide an education to all people, access remains a struggle for many in society, including African Americans.
The reality of admission decisions can be particularly challenging for students of different race or ethnic backgrounds. For example, SAT scores are crucial for gaining acceptance into many schools. However, if African American students’ SAT scores are not competitive, this can prevent them from attending more competitive undergraduate programs, which in turn can affect the possibility of reaching their full potential.
Furthermore, if students perform below their abilities and fail to maintain a minimum GPA, this could increase dropout rates due to diminished motivation, lack of confidence, and a possible lack of financial support. Increasing drop-out rates not only affect higher education institutions, but also negatively impact society as a whole. It limits job opportunities and career options, and decreases the potential for financial gains, relative to those who complete their college degrees. Indeed, there are many African Americans who do not improve their socioeconomic status, despite this being the general expectation upon completing a college degree (Harper, Patton, ; Wooden, 2006).
Stereotype threat could also potentially contribute to a less diverse student body, which in turn can result in a less effective educational experience. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics (“More Hispanics, blacks enrolling in college, but lag in bachelor’s degrees,” 2014), of the 18 to 24-year-olds who were enrolled in college in 2012, 14 percent were African American, 19 percent were Hispanic, and 58 percent were Caucasian. The data suggest that African American and Hispanic students are underrepresented in U.S. colleges. It’s also noteworthy that of the 25 to 29-year-olds who attained bachelor’s degree in 2012, only 9 percent were African American, 9 percent were Hispanic, and 69 percent were Caucasians (“More Hispanics, blacks enrolling in college, but lag in bachelor’s degrees,” 2014). This suggests that the percentage of college students who successfully navigate the college years and receive bachelor’s degrees is significantly lower for African American and Hispanic students, relative to Caucasian students.
Furthermore, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (“Condition of Education – Postsecondary Education – Postsecondary Environments and Characteristics – Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty – Indicator May (2017),” n.d.), only 16 percent of full-time faculty members at post-secondary institutions are minorities. This too can deprive students of a more wide-ranging set of experiences and perspectives from which to better understand their studies and see the world around them. This also does not bode well for minority students who may be in need of role models or mentors to help guide their studies and careers.
Given that the mission of higher education is to provide an education for all people, it’s problematic if student bodies do not reflect the range of diversity that exists in society. Furthermore, given the connection between degree attainment and job opportunities, and the impact this has on socioeconomic growth, the underrepresentation of certain race and ethnic groups in higher education must be addressed.