This Does Really Happen: Stereotypes Undermine Performance

Stereotype threat can be hard to prove in real life situation, but here’s a really good example of how it works

Judit Polgar
Judit Polgar is currently the only woman in the top 100 chess players in the world. Here, she is playing about a dozen other kids at chess. At the same time. She beat them all. Ed Yourdon

Here’s how stereotype threat works: there’s an idea out there about some group you identify—maybe it's being a woman or a person of color or gay or disabled. You know that stereotype, and you’re afraid that you might reinforce it. Which makes you anxious. Which means you perform worse than you might if you were just focusing on whatever you were supposed to be doing.

“Girls are bad at math” is a classic example of this. Girls know that they’re supposed to be worse at math than boys, and they fear that their performance at math will be used to reinforce that stereotype. Their fear often leads to worse performance at math because they’re so focused on not proving the stereotype. 

This phenomenon has been proven in research labs over, and over, and over, but it’s often hard to pin down in the “real world” because there are so many variables. But now, researchers say they’ve got another piece of pretty good proof that what they’re seeing in the lab really does hold up in real life. It comes on the chess board. 

A recent study examined female chess players to see if it were possible to identify proof of stereotype threat. First, the researchers surveyed 77 women to see whether they knew that many think men are better at chess than women. (You can’t be threatened by a stereotype you don’t know exists.) Since they’re chess players, they certainly did. There is only one woman in the top 100 chess players in the world.

Next, the researchers watched men and women play chess at twelve different tournaments. They saw 219 girls between the ages of 5 and 15 play. When they compared how the girls should have done, based on their rankings and previous play, and how they actually did, voilà: “Females performed worse than expected when playing against a male opponent, achieving 83% of the expected success based on their own and their opponent’s prerating," they write.

Not only did the study find that stereotype had an impact on games in the real world, they also found it had an impact on players in the long run: “Those most vulnerable to stereotype threat were less likely to continue playing in future chess tournaments.” This is a phenomenon that fields like science see constantl—women and minorities drop out of science and engineering fields all the time. As far back as 1999, the Atlantic ran a story on how stereotype threat hurts black college students. Throughout the 1990s the dropout rate for African-American college students was 20 to 25 percent higher than for whites. That number has not changed

While it might not seem like a big deal whether a seven-year-old girl wins or loses in a chess tournament, it’s a pretty clear example of why that same seven-year-old might decide not to pursue her dream career in science or math.

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