Psychology Classics: Claude Steele’s Stereotype Threat Paradigm

This post is part of our ongoing series exploring classic experiments and theories in the history of psychological research. In the late 1980s, a university committee at the University of Michigan called for psychology professor Dr. Claude Steele to tackle the problem of academic achievement among minority students at the university. His subsequent research resulted in the discovery and identification of one of the most far-reaching and influential phenomena in social psychology: stereotype threat, or the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about a group to which one belongs.

In the original stereotype threat paradigm,1 Black and White Stanford undergraduate students (male and female) were recruited to participate in a lab study. Prior to participation, all participants were contacted and asked to report their SAT scores. Upon arrival to the lab, a White male experimenter explained to each participant that they would be working on a set of verbal problems for the next 30 minutes. For the crucial manipulation, half of the participants were randomly assigned to the stereotype-threat condition, where they were told that the verbal problems would be diagnostic of their intellectual ability. This was expected to bring to mind the negative stereotypes relevant to Black students and academic performance in the minds of the Black participants, resulting in the fear of fulfilling the stereotypes in that context. The other half of the participants were assigned to the non-stereotype-threat condition, where they were told that the verbal problems were simply a problem-solving task, non-diagnostic of ability. This was expected to make the stereotypes about Black students and academic ability irrelevant, and therefore result in a non-threatening environment for the Black student participants. After receiving these instructions, all participants worked on a test comprised of 30 difficult verbal GRE-like questions for 30 minutes. The main dependent variable was test performance. After controlling for prior SAT skill, results found that the Black students in the experiment significantly underperformed compared to their White counterparts in the diagnostic test condition, whereas Black and White students performed equally in the non-diagnostic test condition. Creating a situation in which stereotype threat is salient led Black students to perform worse than White students on a test supposedly measuring intellectual ability, due to the fear of confirming negative racial stereotypes about intelligence.

In other variations of this paradigm, marking a box indicating their race right before taking a GRE-like test induced stereotype threat among Black students. Being the sole minority in a room full of majority group members similarly has been shown to activate stereotype threat. Stereotype threat can also be applied to various other groups stereotyped in particular domains, such as female students and math performance, White students and athletic performance, older people and memory, etc. In addition, stereotype threat research has demonstrated that individuals highly invested in the domain being threatened are hit the hardest by stereotype threat, and stereotype threat can have significant long-term negative health outcomes among Black Americans. Today, research involving stereotype threat continues to grow, as well as the search for stereotype threat interventions.

Dr. Claude Steele will be speaking about his research on stereotype threat, as well as interventions to counteract its negative consequences, at UCLA on Thursday, January 24th at 4pm. If you are on UCLA’s campus or are in the area, please join us in Covel Commons, Grand Horizon Ballroom.


1. Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African     Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5): 797-811.