Stereotype Threat Definition

Stereotype threat is the perceived risk of confirming,  as  self-characteristic,  a  negative  stereotype about one’s group. Over 300 studies on academic testing show that the threat of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group sets into motion a sequence of psychological processes that inhibit cognitive  capacity  and  exacerbate  performance monitoring.  As  a  result,  stigmatized  individuals underperform  relative  to  nonstigmatized  individuals  and  relative  to  members  of  the  stigmatized group not under stereotype threat. Several studies indicate that stereotype threat processes can reduce achievement in sports when athletes perceive that their performance might be evaluated through the lens of racial or gender stereotypes.

Evidence for Stereotype Threat in Sports

Jeff Stone and colleagues conducted the first study of  stereotype  threat  in  sports  to  test  whether the  salience  of  negative  racial  stereotypes  about Black  athletes  (i.e.,  low  sports  intelligence)  and White  athletes  (i.e.,  low  natural  athletic  ability) could  cause  each  group  to  perform  more  poorly on  a  golf  putting  task.  The  participants  were Black and White former high school athletes, and some  participants  were  told  that  the  test  measured  their  sports  intelligence,  while  others  were told  that  the  test  measured  their  natural  athletic ability.  Participants  in  a  control  condition  were told  that  the  test  measured  their  sport  psychology, a stereotype-irrelevant attribute. As predicted by  stereotype  threat,  the  results  showed  that (a)  both  Blacks  and  Whites  performed  equally well  on  the  putting  task  when  it  was  framed  as a  measure  of  sport  psychology,  (b)  Whites  performed  significantly  worse  than  Blacks  when performance was framed as a measure of natural athletic  ability,  and  (c)  Blacks  performed  significantly worse than Whites when performance was framed  as  measuring  sports  intelligence.  Thus, simply  framing  the  task  in  terms  of  a  negative racial stereotype about each group was sufficient to activate the threat processes that reduced their sports performance.

Female  athletes  suffer  stereotype  threat  when their  natural  athletic  ability  is  linked  to  gender differences in sports. For example, Jeff Stone and Chad  McWhinnie  had  White  females  complete a  golf-putting  task.  To  explicitly  induce  stereotype  threat,  participants  were  told  that  the  test measured  gender  differences  in  athletic  ability.  In addition,  to  create  an  implicit  cue  for  stereotype threat,  a  male  experimenter  ran  the  testing  session. The results were that female athletes required significantly  more  strokes  to  finish  the  putting task  when  it  was  explicitly  framed  as  measuring gender  differences  in  athletic  ability  compared  to control conditions. In addition, women performed less  accurately  on  their  final  putt  when  run  by  a male  compared  to  a  female  experimenter.  Thus, both explicit (e.g., the test frame) and implicit (i.e., experimenter  gender)  reminders  of  the  negative stereotype  about  female  athleticism  impaired  different aspects of their performance. Similar effects are  found  for  female  athletes  on  the  soccer  field and in competitive chess tournaments.

Elite-level   athletes   are   not   immune   to   the stereotype  threat.  Sian  Beilock  and  colleagues recruited expert male golfers who had 2 or more years of high school or college varsity experience or  a  Professional  Golfers’  Association  (PGA)  of America handicap of at least eight. After a baseline round  of  putting,  expert  golfers  in  the  stereotype threat  condition  were  significantly  less  accurate during the second round. Aïna Chalabaev and colleagues reported a similar finding with elite female club soccer players in France, who were unable to match  their  baseline  time  on  a  dribble  test  when it  was  framed  as  measuring  their  natural  athletic ability.

The anticipation of being negatively stereotyped in a sport can engage defensive responses, like self-handicapping, that have a negative effect on how athletes prepare for an important competition. For example,  in  one  study,  White  athletes  were  told that a putting task measures their natural athletic ability  and  were  then  told  they  could  practice on the first hole of the course for as long as they wanted before the test began. The results showed that when under stereotype threat, White athletes self-handicapped  by  practicing  less  compared  to White athletes in control conditions. These results suggest  that  stereotype  threat  processes  can  start to impair athletic performance well before a competition begins.

Stereotype threat primarily impacts the performance  of  athletes  who  maintain  their  self-worth through  their  achievements  in  sports.  Consistent with this reasoning, several studies show that the salience of negative stereotypes primarily reduces the  practice  and  performance  of  psychologically “engaged” athletes. Psychologically “disengaged” athletes, in contrast, are less affected when a negative  group  stereotype  is  salient.  However,  over time,  athletes  may  respond  to  stereotype  threat by  psychologically  disengaging  from  competitive  outcomes  and  eventually  by  misidentifying and  withdrawing  from  the  performance  domain. These coping responses may not only cause some talented  individuals  to  quit  playing  a  sport,  but to  avoid  being  the  target  of  threat  in  the  future, they  may  give  up  participation  in  recreational sport, which has important consequences for their health.

Reducing Stereotype Threat in Sports

One  way  to  reduce  stereotype  threat  effects  in sports is to emphasize the racial or gender neutrality  of  a  competitive  performance  context.  When negative  stereotypes  are  salient  during  competition,  athletes  can  deflect  stereotype  threat  if  they learn to view characteristics like athletic ability or sports intelligence as malleable attributes they can improve  with  practice.  They  can  also  strengthen their  sense  of  efficacy  to  overcome  a  stereotype threat  through  exposure  to  in-group  role  models  who  exhibit  strong  counter stereotypic  attributes.  Finally,  teaching  athletes  to  recognize  the causes  and  consequences  of  stereotype  threat  can empower  them  to  defend  against  its  detrimental effects when they prepare for and perform in their sport.

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