Stereotype Threat: The Paradox of Becoming Exactly What You’re Trying to Prove That You’re Not. (Huh?!)

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Nowadays, screened orchestral auditions are the norm. But it wasn’t so long ago that the audition process was more overtly biased, or even conducted privately (as described in this 1981 article in the NY Times).

So when renowned horn player Julie Landsman auditioned for – and won – the principal horn position at the Met in 1985, she defied some common gender stereotypes held at the time, and became the first female member of the brass section (described in more detail in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink).

Being competitive and strong-willed by nature, Landsman notes that the situation motivated her to strive for even higher levels of excellence.

However, there are many cases in which the opposite can happen. Where despite having the talent or intellect, an individual ends up performing below their ability, thereby inadvertently reinforcing a negative stereotype.

Wait…so stereotypes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How would that work?

Stereotype threat

The phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” was first explored in several studies of Stanford undergraduates in the mid-1990’s. What the researchers found, was an interesting form of choking, in which African-American students underperformed relative to their Caucasian peers when they were told that a test was “diagnostic of intellectual ability” but performed equally well when the test was presented as a “laboratory tool for studying problem solving.”

In other words, when the situation activated a negative stereotype about scholastic ability, the African-American students underperformed. But when the negative stereotype was not activated, they performed up to their abilities.

What would lead to such a result? Well, have you ever wanted to prove someone wrong? Like the obnoxious kid in your neighborhood who said that girls can’t throw a football, or the math teacher who thought the star athlete couldn’t hack calculus? But in wanting so badly to prove they were wrong about you, you tried way too hard, fell on your face, and paradoxically, ended up proving them right?

In a similar sort of way, it appears that in an effort to perform well and avoid confirming society’s negative stereotypes of their intellectual ability, the African-American students in the “intellectual ability” condition may have experienced more performance pressure, contributing to a drop in performance.

Stereotype threat has since been studied in a range of contexts, from gender stereotypes in chess performance to racial differences in athletic performance on a golf task.

And while the effect of stereotype threat on performance is certainly worth a closer look, I recently came across a study that highlighted an aspect of stereotype threat that might be even more important.

Its effect on learning.


A pair of researchers in Brazil conducted a study of 24 female undergraduates with little to no experience playing soccer.

The participants were asked to practice and perform a task which involved dribbling a soccer ball through a short slalom course (essentially, weaving in and out of six cones as quickly as possible without touching any of them).

A test, some practice, and some more tests

Everyone started out with a trial run of the course to establish a baseline level of performance. They also completed a self-efficacy questionnaire, in which they were asked how confident they were about their ability to complete the course in 30, 25, 20, or 15 seconds if given 15 more practice runs.

Before doing any practice, half of the participants were told that the dribbling challenge involved “athletic speed/power capacities” and was a task where “women normally perform worse than men” (the stereotype threat group).

The other half were told that this was a task “involving agility/coordination capacities,” where “women normally perform similarly than men” (the neutral group).

Each participants was given 15 practice runs through the slalom course, followed by five test runs immediately after training. And then a day later, another five test runs to see how much of their training stuck.

A performance gap

Everyone performed about the same on the first run through the course, so all participants began the study at about the same level.

However, after just 15 practice repetitions, a performance difference emerged! As you probably guessed already, the stereotype threat group performed worse than the neutral group.

This gap in performance was evident in the next day’s dribbling test too, suggesting that this effect was not just temporary. Furthermore, the neutral group had higher self-efficacy scores as well, indicating that they were more confident in their ability to navigate the course effectively – even after the same amount of practice.


Stereotype threat is a sneaky, paradoxical sort of way to experience a drop in performance. So even though it may not be the primary cause of choking in every single situation, it’s an interesting and important factor to be aware of – both in performance and learning.

But…what can we do to negate or avoid being affected by stereotype threat?

Take action

There are some indications that simply being aware of stereotype threat can help nullify its effects. So just reading this post may have helped! (Although not all studies have found this to be true…so, you know…grain of salt).

Adopting a growth mindset also seems to be helpful.

And an exercise known as “values affirmation,” which involves taking a few minutes to list your core values – or write a bit more in-depth about just one – seems to have a surprisingly robust effect as well.

Ultimately, there appear to be a number of different ways to help reduce stereotype threat. So if you find yourself trying to support the development and growth of a young musician who loves music but doesn’t feel like they “belong,” or is playing an instrument that crosses traditional gender or racial stereotypes and feels pressure to prove themself, you may want to check out this 1-page summary of a dozen research-supported strategies for reducing stereotype threat (with lots of references!) compiled by the good folks at Stanford.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


One Response

  1. Hmm, I’m not sure about this one?? Could it be that the group who did better did so because one requires skill and agility? I’m a guy and reckon if I’d approached it thinking of brute force I’d do badly too. Perhaps they should have had a “guy control group” doing the task under the same instructions.

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