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stereotype threat consequences vulnerable situations mechanisms reduce criticisms unresolved issues
What exactly is stereotype threat?

What mediates stereotype threat?

Different operationalizations, same processes?

Are there different types of stereotype threat?

There are several issues that are currently unresolved that would appear to benefit from additional theoretical refinement or empirical attention.

What exactly is stereotype threat?

Although people reliably perform more poorly under stereotype threat, there is a surprising degree of variability in defining exactly what stereotype threat represents. Steele and Aronson (1995) originally defined stereotype threat as "being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group" (p. 797). This definition emphasizes the central role of the self, and this element is also emphasized in some other definitions. Kray, Thompson, and Galinsky (2001), for instance, defined stereotype threat as "concern and anxiety over confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group" (p. 943), and Croizet and Claire (1998) suggested that stereotype threat "arises whenever individuals' behavior could be interpreted in terms of a stereotype, that is, whenever group members run the risk of substantiating the stereotype" (p. 589).

Other definitions de-emphasize the role of the self and highlight the possibility of one's group being judged in stereotypic terms. Schmader and Johns (2003) suggested that stereotype threat occurs when "one could be seen as confirming a negative social stereotype about their ingroup" (p. 440), and Bosson, Haymovitz, and Pinel (2004) claim it arises when "performance on a particular task might confirm a negative stereotype about one's group" (p. 247).

A third set of definitions emphasize the central role of emotions and responses to threat. Stereotype threat, according to Aronson and Inzlicht (2004) is "the apprehension people feel when performing in a domain in which their group is stereotyped to lack ability" (p. 830). Similarly, Steele and his colleagues (2002) argue that stereotype threat is "the concrete real-time threat of being judged and treated poorly in settings where a negative stereotype about one's group applies" (p. 385). 

These subtle differences in emphasis might not ultimately prove to be fundamentally important. After all, any definition of a multi-faceted phenomenon well tend to emphasize some aspects of that phenomenon over others, depending on the immediate context in which the term is used. Shapiro and Neuberg (2007) suggest, however, that these definitional variations might be highlighting meaningful differences in the nature of stereotype threat that group members experience in different situations, a speculation consistent with a recent paper by Wout, Danso, Jackson and Spencer (2008). Moreover, the specific nature of the stereotype threat experience could determine the subsequent consequences for reactions, judgments, and behavior. 

What mediates stereotype threat?

From the beginning of research in this area, several different factors have been invoked as responsible for creating performance decrements under stereotype threat. Steele and Aronson (1995) suggested that stereotype threat might interfere with performance by increasing arousal, diverting attention, increasing self-focus, engendering overcautiousness, prompting low expectations, or reducing effort. In fact, the accumulated research evidence implicates all of these factors and several others.  

Many papers have provided evidence that single factors mediate the relation between stereotype threat and performance. To infer from such evidence that these single factors alone account for the effects of stereotype threat is problematic, however, for several reasons. First, it is difficult to measure all potential mediators in a single experiment given the diverse procedures that would be required, the time it would take to collect all the data, the fact that responding to multiple measures might increase demand characteristics, and the possibility of cross-measure contamination that can occur when multiple measures are completed in sequence. Therefore, researchers tend to select candidates for mediation based on the specific research context or the theoretical underpinnings or focus of the particular set of studies. However, this means that evidence of mediation by one measured factor does not preclude mediation by other, unmeasured factors. Second, this problem is particularly pronounced if stereotype threat produces multiple consequences that co-occur and correlate. Consistent with this notion, Steele and Aronson (1995) suggested that "depending on the situation, several of these processes may be involved simultaneously or in alteration" (p. 799). If multiple processes arise under stereotype threat, then it might be important to identify which are most likely to co-occur and which are most likely to account for stereotype threat effects in different contexts. Recently, Schmader, Johns, and Forbes (2008) have argued that stereotype threat affects behavior through multiple mechanisms including physiological responses to stress, the tendency to actively monitor one's performance under stereotype threat, and the attempt to control one's emotions and thoughts under stereotype threat. Combined together, these factors undermine cognitive capacity required for effective performance, although any subset of factors might directly account for poorer performance, depending on the specific features of a task.

Different operationalizations, same processes?

Many different means have been used to induce and to attenuate stereotype threat. In some studies, participants are told that a given test did or did not produce group differences in performance (e.g., Johns, Schmader, & Martens, 2005; Keller & Dauenheimer, 2003; O’Brien & Crandall, 2003; Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Sekaquaptewa & Thompson, 2003; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). Other studies produce threat by soliciting information about social group memberships prior to test-taking (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995; Stricker & Ward, 2004) or by reminding participants of typical group differences in performance on the task (e.g., Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele, & Brown, 1999; Beilock, Rydell, & McConnell, 2007; Yeung & von Hippel, 2008). Sometimes, tests are described either as diagnostic or non-diagnostic of ability (e.g., Kray, Thompson, & Galinsky, 2001; Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Other studies manipulate stereotype threat by changing the numerical representation of groups in the testing situation (Ben-Zeev, Fein, & Inzlicht, 2005; Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000) and yet others induce threat by exposing participants to media materials that reflect stereotypes (e.g., Davies, Spencer, Quinn, & Gerhardstein, 2002; Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005; Oswald & Harvey, 2000-2001).

In addition, there are differences across studies regarding the nature of control groups against which the performance of individuals under stereotype threat is compared. Steele and Davies (2003) suggest that control conditions are those in which threat is removed by describing a test as "fair" or non-diagnostic of ability, and that has been done in numerous studies (e.g., Croizet, Després, Gauzins, Huguet, Leyens, & Méot, 2004; Jamieson & Harkins, 2007; Kiefer & Sekaquaptewa, 2007). Other studies, however, include control conditions in which test diagnosticity is simply not mentioned (e.g., Gonzales, Blanton, & Williams, 2002; Harrison, Stevens, Monty, & Coakley, 2006) or is retained (Good, Aronson, & Harder, 2008). Yet other studies never mention the diagnosticity of the test at all and instead have conditions that simply do or do not invoke stereotypes (e.g., Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, & Mitchell, 2004; Keller, 2002), conditions that invoke stereotypes that are then either refuted or endorsed (e.g., Smith & White, 2002), or use manipulations to make race or gender salient or not (e.g., Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2001; Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Although it is comforting that stereotype threat effects appear to be robust despite these different operationalizations, it is also quite possible that these different manipulations and comparisons differ in the nature, the focus, or the intensity of the threat they produce. If so, the specific processes that occur under stereotype threat might differ as well. This might help explain why the specific pattern of stereotype threat effects often vary across studies. Some studies show only performance decrements under threat, whereas others show stereotype lift in one group and performance decrements in the threat group. Others produce a crossover interaction where one group's performance is superior in the control condition but the other group's performance is better in the threat condition.

Meta-analytic procedures might be useful for identifying whether differences in findings are tied to the different operationalizations that have been used. But it is also possible that designing studies that systematically vary and compare findings with different manipulations of stereotype threat and differing control groups might also be of value. 

Are there different types of stereotype threat?

Additional theoretical refinement could also disambiguate some of the causes and consequences of stereotype threat. One such attempt is represented by a recent theoretical piece by Shapiro and Neuberg (2007). In this article, the authors propose that there might be different types of stereotype threat that can be distinguished by considering who is threatened (one's self vs. one's group) and who is the source of the threat (the self, ingroup members, outgroup members). Although extant work has tended to focus on certain combinations (e.g., when an individual becomes concerned that he or she might be viewed as having a stereotypical characteristic by an outgroup member), each combination is possible. More important, these authors suggest that the different target/source combinations produce qualitatively different types of stereotype threat that are moderated and mediated by different variables. Consistent with this notion is work by Wout, Danso, Jackson, and Spencer (2008) who showed that stereotype threat that focused on the individual or that focused on the individual's group both produced performance decrements. However, only the latter type of threat was moderated by the strength of group identification.  Although this paper did not examine this issue, it is also possible that different interventions might be required to ameliorate each type of stereotype threat. Theoretical models such as the one offered by Shapiro and Neuberg (2007) should prove invaluable in guiding research on stereotype threat in the coming years.

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