How to Overcome Stereotype Threat: Looking Beyond Society's Expectations

Written by: Steven Handel

We live in a world full of expectations.

Society often expects us to act a certain way and be a certain way depending on who we are and what the “norms” are in a particular culture. These are the stereotypes we all have to face to some degree.

Stereotype threat is when we fear conforming to these negative stereotypes, which often creates stress and anxiety that ends up causing us to act in a way that makes that stereotype into a reality.

For example, an African American may experience stereotype threat when taking an SAT or IQ test, because of the stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent than other people.

This stereotype causes unnecessary stress and anxiety, which then leads an individual to under-perform, making the stereotype become true.

Stereotype threat is a very powerful force in our society. People’s expectations of us can often become self-fulling, because we are unconsciously influenced to conform to these standards.

The more we give in to these stereotypes and let them occupy our mind, the more likely they are to influence us. Here are healthy steps to take to help reduce stereotype threat in your life.

Find role models you can relate to

One of the most effective ways to overcome stereotype threat is to find people who have already achieved similar goals to the ones you want to achieve.

It’s also very important that your role models are people who also had to overcome the same stereotype you are facing.

For example, one recent study discovered that when women read articles about other successful women in architecture, law, and medicine, they perform better on a difficult math test. And another interesting study discovered that when black Americans are reminded of Barack Obama, they perform better on a verbal exam.

This shows us that when we remind ourselves of people who have already overcome certain stereotypes, we become more confident in our own abilities, because we realize it’s possible to overcome these stereotypes.

As an exercise, I highly recommend you start a list of people you admire and save it somewhere. And as you discover new role models, add them to your list.

This “role models” list can become a very inspiring resource to have in the future whenever you need an extra boost in your confidence or motivation.

Cultivate a growth mindset

Another factor that has shown to overcome stereotype threat is having a “growth mindset.”

A “growth mindset” is when we believe that our intelligence and abilities can be improved on through time, work, and dedication. This is the opposite of a “fixed mindset,” where we believe that our intelligence and abilities are something we are stuck with due to genes, environment, or other outside circumstances.

Many studies have shown the power of a growth mindset. For example, in one study it was discovered that when blacks were told that intelligence is “like a muscle” that can be exercised, they reported greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and obtained higher grade point averages (GPA’s).

And in another study, it was found that when women, minorities, and low-income individuals were taught that their intelligence was malleable and changeable, they performed much better in school than those who were taught their academic difficulty was due to outside factors.

It’s important to remember that despite outside factors, we still have power and control over the results we get in life. And often times by re-focusing on our own individual effort, we can improve our intelligence and abilities.

By approaching our goals with a “growth mindset,” we are better able to overcome obstacles without getting too discouraged – because we better notice the “small progress” in our lives and continue building off of it.

For more, check out one of my recent articles about why you should believe in hard work over genes .

Reframe your performance anxiety

One of the big reasons stereotype threat has such a negative influence is that it depletes mental resources.

People get so scared that they are going to fulfill a negative stereotype, so they spend more time worrying about that then focusing on the actual task at hand.

Naturally this is going to lead to worse performances.

However, some research such as this study suggests that when individuals were told that their performance anxiety is actually a good thing – because it increases focus and motivation – they performed better on an exam (despite the stereotype threat).

Instead of trying to fight their anxiety or get rid of it, individuals were told that it was good for them. So instead of “worrying about worrying,” individuals could just focus on completing the task. Any fear, worry, or concern they’d experience was just seen as a positive motivator.

There’s a great quote from the writer Steven Pressfield:

  • “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”
  • In many ways, doing our best requires us to act in the face of our fears, not wait for them to go away completely.

    Affirm yourself and your self-worth

    Having high confidence and self-worth can be an important requirement in overcoming stereotype threat.

    In one recent study , women who were given a chance to write down their strengths or reflect on a past accomplishment showed improved performance on a math test, as well as a spatial awareness test.

    Sometimes, we get too caught up in the “negative” things about ourselves that we forget about all the “positive” things about ourselves.

    Reminding yourself of your positive characteristics can help boost your self-esteem, and do a great service in minimizing stereotype threat in the future.

    This technique is especially useful if you can think of accomplishments that are related to the task you want to improve in.

    For example, if you’re someone wanting to perform better in a science class, it would be great if you can think of other times in your past when you did well in something science-related.

    Minimize identifying with labels

    At the end of the day, we are complicated people that rarely fit neatly into a single label.

    Perhaps you identify strongly as a “black woman,” but certainly there is much more to your identity than simply your race and gender, right?

    In fact, many times there is more diversity within a particular race or gender than there is across different races or gender. One black woman can be a very, very different person than another.

    We often have many different social identities intertwined, and they are part of what make us unique as an “individual.”

    Studies show that sometimes putting less emphasis on a particular “social identity” can be an effective way to reduce stereotype threat.

    For example, by reminding individuals of other aspects of their identity that are irrelevant to a negative stereotype (hobbies, personal interests, or beliefs) they are less likely to be affected by stereotype threat regarding their race or gender.

    This is because the identity associated with the stereotype becomes less salient in the person’s mind – it’s not emphasized as the absolute “core” of their being. The person is reminded that they are complex and multifaceted.

    If you’re interested in reading more about this concept, check out my article don’t label yourself .

    Pretend you’re your future self

    One of the most powerful attitudes to take in your life is to act as if you are already your future self.

    Often there’s no better way to look beyond society’s expectations and overcome stereotype threat than to set your own standards – based on your own expectations for yourself in the future.

    Take a moment and imagine: “How would my ideal future self think and act if I had already achieved the type of goals I want to achieve?”

    Playing pretend can help you see yourself in new ways – ways which you may have not thought about yourself previously.

    This can be a huge help because it can often bring you closer to thinking and acting in new ways that serve your goals, rather than work against them.

    When you do this, you’re also expanding your sense of “identity” outside of ways that conform to stereotype threat.

    You can learn more about this attitude in my article start living more as your future self .