Creating the World You Expect: The Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group  (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This chapter investigates whether the self-enforcement mechanism of stereotype threat might work as the transmission mechanism through which we internalise authoritarian behaviour.

The following aspects of stereotyping will be examined here:

1) Stereotyping is a way to mitigate the anxiety and fear of the unknown. By applying stereotypical received wisdom on the unknown, one can create the illusion of knowledge and thus limit the perceived threat. But it doesn’t make the stereotype right. Or does it?

2) Further problem is that stereotypes are not meant to be positive. Received wisdom serves to protect from unexpected threats, it is meant to be a warning, not a compliment. It is not meant to create positive anticipation. As a result we enforce and self-enforce the dumbest character traits: cowardice, deference to power, conformity, and fear.

3) But the real question here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of stereotypes, but people’s spectacular insistence to keep using them. This is where the phenomenon can be tackled.

Stereotypes are both enforced and self-enforced

A stereotype is 1) my belief about people I don’t know – but also 2) my knowledge of the stereotypes concerning me. So enforcement and self-enforcement both play a role in making them true – and they are hard to tell apart.

Those studies about stereotype threat really only measure how much we enforce these things on ourselves.

In other words, I will act according to my own expectations of what people expect from me, even when it is not enforced by the threat of a burning stake. Furthermore I can only confirm or deny the stereotypes against me – so I am stuck with them, either way. In other words, I enforce the stereotypes on myself.

But it is enforced, more often than not. Our first world experiences are watered-up in this respect. No mother beats up her daughter for doing math homework instead of learning to cook. No family member is ready to kill us if we are not modest enough. No one legally kills or ostracizes a man for being gay. We shrug these things off as impossible, even though they are the everyday reality to most of the world.

A stereotype is not simply enforced, it is implanted first. A stereotype is a self-executing piece of meme installed on me – and it doesn’t need to be actively enforced, as long as I am aware of it. All a meme needs to spread in a population is obedience to follow its commands and the willingness to replicate its message. And replicate we do. Don’t you find it curious how people cannot stop repeating tedious cliches? There is no way someone hadn’t heard of the cheese-eaters in their life and yet, something compels us to repeat it every time the French come up in a conversation. Just in case. So we do repeat compulsively.

Now let’s see whether we obey. And how?

How does a stereotype work?

The invisible way: Every enforcer’s dream

When you know about them and adhere to them. Feel guilty when supposed to. Withdraw when used to. Be shy or aggressive when supposed to. You know when that is. You are all too aware of the (real or perceived) judgment of others. You are dependent on their opinion and it makes you do it to yourself.


 1) If the process is self-executing, it uses purely the victim’s resources. No effort needed for enforcement.

This is probably what all those stereotype-threat studies picked up on – they didn’t make the distinction between enforcement and self-enforcement and only experimented with the latter. In the infamous study (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) where women fared worse on a math test when having to write their gender on the top of the test sheet, no one reminded them out loud that “Please remember, women are not supposed to be good at math.” Neither did the researchers threaten them with a fine or not finding a husband if they are too good at the test. They reminded themselves.

 2) It is deniable.

No one did it. It is the subject’s fault. Why didn’t he just ignore what other expected of him? Why wasn’t he smart enough to recognise and modify his own behaviour? It is a perfect launching pad for a good victim blaming and the victim is rendered helpless with only himself to blame.

If it bothers you that you’re supposed to be the brave and the breadwinner, why didn’t you just ignore it? Who made you to get married and offer to be a breadwinner? See? You did it to yourself.You threw yourself at the robber, no one made you. So shut up. You totally had a choice, you were just too cowardly to make it.

The second best way for a stereotype to work: Enforcement

When stereotypes need to be enforced, they are already weak. It has serious disadvantages:

 1) It requires the enforcer to put in some effort. 

It starts with unconscious, benevolent, or passive aggressive methods.

A woman doesn’t give birth by a certain age? Ask about it gently. Talk about how women (as such) are nurturing. See if she explodes. Demand an explanation. Tell her how much grandparents like grandchildren. A German fails to complete a task? Make a fuss. It makes him irritated? Feign surprise and tell him “don’t be so harsh”. You didn’t say anything, right? It is a benign stereotype, relax!

2) But it makes the pressure explicit – thus undeniable. 

As I said, had the researchers reminded the ladies taking the math test not to emasculate the gentlemen in the room – and there would be a good change of resistance.

Would the I’m-not-prejudiced-but types revel in the glorious test results of the pissed off women, who excelled at the test in defiance? Absolutely yes. It would be carried around on “right-wing” websites proving that no one is oppressed here. Defiance helps the oppressed to perform better.

Again, those tests measured self-enforcement, not explicit enforcement.

3) It is more risky, because it may trigger resistance.

Especially when it’s very aggressive.

Only a beginner (or a lynch mob) tries to enforce a stereotype by force

Public shaming or having to beat someone up carries the risk of resistance, it costs you great effort, and others might disagree when you enforce your prejudice explicitly. Only a very stupid prejudiced person would resort to open enforcement.

Not to mention that if you burn someone at the stake, they won’t stay to sing your praise and won’t join your army of enforcers. They won’t even boost your headcount of silent obedience.

The psychological need to hold prejudices 

The real question here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of stereotypes, but people’s spectacular insistence to keep using them.

Whether they apply to any single individual or not, stereotypes are the safety blanket for people, who otherwise claim to be grown-up and courageous. They veil over the debilitating fear of the unknown and makes it look like loud, brave common sense. For the fearful it provides the illusion of knowledge, where there is none. It should be deemed more dangerous, not less so – if it wasn’t for its self-fulfilling potency. Stereotypes are negative. No one needs to be prepared for positive traits in others. So they give, after all, a false sense of security. Or insecurity. Or paranoia.

According some research in the presence of evidence, people tend not to apply the stereotypes.

people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals. It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person.

Jussim, L., Cain, T. R., Crawford, J. T., Harber, K., & Cohen, F. (2009). The unbearable accuracy of stereotypes. Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, 199-227.

Still, why bother with the stereotype, when saying “I don’t know yet” is perfectly accurate and actually more safe?

How prejudice harms prosperity

According to a rigid interpretation of the hierarchy of needs, for instance, the willingness to let go of prejudices and thinking without stereotypes is on the highest level of the pyramid – it belongs to the desire to know and understand. Prejudice, however, results in a general decline in prosperity. In other words, it affects the bottom of the pyramid.

The Wold Development Report uses stereotypes as a textbook example of mental models used by a social group. Prejudices based on easily recognisable traits, such as gender, race, social class, etc. are sticky because they provide an illusion of knowledge, even when they are completely dysfunctional or damaging.

The Report provides the example of schoolchildren in India from two different castes. By naming their own caste (privileged or lower caste) pupils fell prey to the stereotype threat, when they are “reminded” how they are supposed to fare on a task. (See stereotype threat, Baumeister 2005)

When tested without reminding them of their caste, pupils fared evenly.

When tested together with reminder of caste, the lower caste underperformed substantially.

When tested separately, but with a reminder, even the privileged, upper caste children underperformed. According to the Report, reminding them of their privileged status and that they are supposed to perform better anyway made them not even to try.

In other words, prejudice stifles performance for every group (privileged and underclass).

caste and performance stereotype WBR

Source: World Bank WDR 2015 Page 12

Considering the rigid interpretation of the Maslow pyramid, where absence of prejudice and the willingness to accept facts ad let go of dysfunctional beliefs is near the very top of the metamotivational needs, we can see the problem with that interpretation.

Conditional morality – Trapped in a paradox

Another point where received wisdom has proved wrong is the issue of conditional morality.

Similarly to conditional stupidity (Steele – Aronson, 1995), people can be rendered immoral by their own expectations that 1) others are immoral so one cannot afford to be moral, or 2) that others perceive them as such anyway (prejudice).

Paradoxically, in order to create trust, one must deserve it and grant it at the same time. It is created by simultaneous effort, but it can be demolished one-sidedly, by either party. Distrust creates its own reason.

Economic models predict rational and self-interested players, which would roughly translate into free riders, when the system makes that behaviour available.

Reality, however, is always a bit more complicated. In a public goods game conducted in 8 countries, people proved to be overwhelmingly neither free riders nor unconditional co-operators. The majority turned out to be conditional co-operators. (Henrich et. al 2001, quoted by World Development Report, 2015)

conditional cooperation

Everyone would love to live in a society where one can leave a bicycle out without chains – but no one dares to go first. The phenomenon applies to a range of other things, from smiles and optimism through trust to cooperation.

By extension, it also applies to the way we assess each other’s political attitudes and behaviour.

“I would stand up to the excesses of power but others wouldn’t and I would be left alone. So it would be irrational.”

We should evidently start to entertain the notion of conditionality – or reflexivity.

By letting go of notions about (a fixed) human nature as such and moving on to the question of how to facilitate cooperation, morality and trust on societal level, in a conditionally moral and conditionally cooperative environment, we ask better questions. The World Development Report argues that economics has come full circle since Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes staging rational individual against animal spirits, followed by Samuelson and his completely rational players, to the present where we revisit old concepts and reconsider human decision-making, making room for experimental results and conditional behaviour. “After a respite of about 40 years, an economics based on a more realistic understanding of human beings is being reinvented. But this time, it builds on a large body of empirical evidence—microlevel evidence from across the behavioral and social sciences. The mind, unlike a computer, is psychological, not logical; malleable, not fixed.” (WDR 2015:5)

We should also factor is prejudices, perceptions and beliefs about one another when we try to reverse the spiral of mistrust, fear, and helplessness in a society.


How to fight the stereotype threat in authoritarian thinking?

The specific mechanisms by which stereotype threat harms performance is not straightforward, probably because it acts through multiple channels. Stereotype threat produces several different consequences, each of which can contribute to decreased performance (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002).

The above example of dismissing others as authoritarian and therefore not standing up is a case of motivation loss by internalising the stereotype we have about others.

But there are other mechanisms postulated to transmit stereotype threat that may shed light to the roundabout ways society disenfranchises itself. Steele and Aronson (1995) speculated that distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even overeffort might all play a role and they are interconnected as some might have guessed. So can physiological stress, performance self-monitoring, and attempted emotional regulation, exhausting the available cognitive resources to a task and creating a debilitating self-consciousness. Lowered performance expectations may definitely contribute – in self and in others, so do “self-handicapping” (offering psychological protection by providing an a priori explanation for failure) and underpreparation can also produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But stereotype threat may very well be at work in non-performance related and less quantifiable fields, such as inclinations and views of the world. In other words, people may like what they are supposed to like and think what they are supposed to think.


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