Threat of Stereotypes 

Meet Jane. Jane is 90 kg and overweight. All her life, she’s been taught being overweight makes her unattractive, so she hides her figure by wearing baggy clothes, doesn’t wear makeup, and pays no attention to her appearance.

This is Mary. Mary is 54 kg and slim. She feels confident of the way she looks and enhances her assets by wearing makeup, tailors her dresses, and wears heels that accentuate her long legs. Wherever she goes, she makes heads turn.

And here comes Tom, a man both women find attractive. Now, if you were Tom, whom would you choose? Most people would pick Mary. But why? Is it just because Mary is slim? What if Jane pays more attention to what she wears and how she carries herself? Would you pick Jane then?

Overweight people are unattractive. Men are better at math. Women are bad drivers. These are familiar stereotypes. But what if you get stereotyped over and over again? Do you start to internalize the negative characteristics associated with the stereotypes and actually allow them to become self-fulfilling prophecies? This is what psychologists call stereotype threat.

In 1995, American psychologists Claude Steel and Joshua Aronson put this theory of stereotype threat to the test. They conducted four rounds of experiments involving African-American and white college students from Stanford University. Students took a difficult test in the first two experiments and completed a task in the third. When they were told that the test or the task was a measurement of intellectual ability, African-American students performed worse than their white counterparts. However, when the tasks were described as not diagnostic of ability, their performance equaled that of their white counterparts.

To reinforce the impact of the stereotype threat, the psychologists conducted the fourth experiment. Students had to fill in a personal information questionnaire before the test. The questionnaires were all identical except that on some, the final question asked participants to indicate their race. The main aim? To see if the stereotype of African-Americans being less intelligent actually affects their test scores. So, how did they perform on the test when presented with feelings of stereotype threat? Those who had indicated their race before the test performed poorly. Those who did not have to indicate their race prior to the test fared better.

According to Steel, an individual does not have to believe in the stereotype to be vulnerable to it. His research suggests stereotypes are self-fulfilling in nature. When a person performs badly in an area they are stereotypically supposed to be bad at, they might think the stereotype is true and perpetuate it further with bad performance.

Now, if poor Jane hadn’t believed that being overweight was unattractive, would she have had a little more confidence to be friends with Tom? How about you? What stereotypes are keeping you from getting what you really want? And does the sheer belief in these stereotypes stop you in your tracks?


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