Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 6: Social identity

Case Study: The effects of being stigmatized

Stereotype threat caused by the awareness of being stigmatized can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Steele and Aronson (1995) demonstrated this using the stereotype that Black Americans are unintelligent and academically untalented. They showed that when Black students experienced a stereotype threat, this harmed their performance.

Spencer (1994) found similar effects using the stereotype that women are less able than men in math. Steele and Aronson argued that there are a number of mechanisms that can be involved in the impairment effects. Participants experiencing a stereotype threat might be distracted, have narrowed attention, feel anxious, be self-conscious, or withdraw their effort. Several of these mechanisms might be involved simultaneously. According to Steele and Aronson, the most likely mechanism is that the stereotype threat causes inefficiency in processing.

So being stigmatized seems to be detrimental to performance, and also to self-esteem (see SP chapter 6). The work of Steele and Aronson suggests that the awareness that one is being stigmatized is dysfunctional in order to cope with the stigma. However, Swann's (1984) research on self-verification showed that people try to disconfirm information and expectations other people have about them that are inconsistent with their self-concepts.

This has been supported by the work of Miller et al. (1995). They demonstrated that stigmatized obese women who were visible to their interaction partner, and thus were aware of the possibility that they were being stigmatized, compensated for their stigma of being dislikeable and had a lack of social skills. This demonstrated that stigmatized people can compensate for the prejudice of others, so it does not necessarily mean that being aware of prejudice inevitably leads to harm to performance. Whether performance is negatively or positively influenced by awareness of the prejudice depends on the characteristics of the task, the frustration involved, the ambiguity of the prejudice, and of course the kind of prejudice.


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In this chapter

  1. Chapter 6 introduction
  2. Categorizing oneself as a group member
  3. Me, you, and them: Effects of social categorization
  4. When group memberships are negative
  5. Chapter overview (PDF)
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks
  7. Multiple-choice questions