Stereotype Threat

(a) What Stereotype Threat Is

Stereotype threat occurs when members of a group underperform as a result of (a) their consciousness of a negative stereotype related to their membership in said group and (b) a desire not to conform to that stereotype. To illustrate, one is able to weaken the golf scores of black participants (compared to a control group) by telling them that a particular course is a measure of "strategic sports intelligence." One is also able to weaken the golf scores of white participants by telling them that the course is a measure of "natural athletic ability" (Steele, p. 8-10). Because blacks are stereotyped as being less intelligent, and whites as less athletic, anxiety about confirming these stereotypes adds to one's cognitive load, taking up resources that would otherwise contribute to the performance of the task at hand.

(b) The Significance of Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat affects members of stereotyped groups in philosophy in several ways: their grades, enjoyment of their courses, and their interest in the material. Stereotype threat makes members of affected groups doubt whether they're the "right people" to study philosophy. These in turn affect the likeliness of doing well academically in philosophy, pursuing further philosophy classes, a minor, or a major.

(c) Some Recommendations for Teachers

Stereotype threat is triggered by "cues" in one's environment: signals that remind one of one's social group and the stereotypes associated with it. These cues can be neutralized by other cues which tell against the stereotype. For instance, although philosophy is associated with being suitable for white males, an instructor who is not a white male undermines that stereotype. In light of this, strategies worth pursuing include:

  • Introducing a substantial proportion of readings from authors from underrepresented groups.
  • Examples and images that involve members of underrepresented groups.

Other strategies for preventing stereotype threat and reducing its impact include:

  • Encouraging a view of intelligence as malleable, whereby students understand intelligence as something that can be developed and expanded with effort and study. (Steele, 167-169)
  • Giving feedback in which you base evaluation on high standards, acknowledging that you have confidence students can meet those standards. This works far better than being neutral or simply prefacing the feedback with a generic, positive statement. (Steele, 161-164)
  • Explicitly rejecting stereotypes, e.g., by making a point that philosophy is about reasoning and clear thinking, and that members of all groups are equally equipped to succeed in philosophy.
  • Affirming promising students of underrepresented groups who may not realize that they are cut out for further work in philosophy.
  • Fostering interaction between students from different groups.

(d) Further Discussion

  1. A book on stereotype threat by the phenomenon's leading researcher: Claude Steele: Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do about It.
  2. The UPDirectory, which compiles works done by philosophers in underrepresented groups.
  3. "The 20% Experiment" -- an initiative to increase the proportion of underrepresented philosophers on syllabi.
  4. Stereotype Threat in in Philosophy

Updated 7/17/2014, with many thanks to Dan Lowe, PhD candidate and member of the climate committee