Since the term stereotype threat was coined by psychologist Claude Steele, its effects on stigmatized groups have been studied and confirmed by numerous researchers across the social sciences. Stereotype threat contributes to lower academic achievement among students from stigmatized groups because they fear perpetuating negative group stereotypes. If this anxiety is heightened enough, it can lead to a psychological process called “disidentification,” in which an individual will drop the stress-inducing act (say, an advanced placement class) to raise self-esteem. Repeat disidentification enough, and it leads to decreased levels of interest, effort, and ultimately, underperformance.

In a recent journal article, sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Jayanti Owens expand on the concept of stereotype threat by exploring how its impact on individuals varies by social context (in this case, by the contexts of specific schools, like whether they’re public or private, highly selective, or emphasize diversity) and personal characteristics (such as the student’s skin color, immigrant background, parental education, etc.). Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF), the authors test to see how the variables affect the GPAs of black students over their undergraduate careers.

The authors find that while institutional factors are surprisingly insignificant in inducing stereotype threat among black students, personal characteristics are significant. Individuals whose “blackness” was in question (for example, because they’d been educated in integrated schools, had a light skin tone, or had a non-black parent) were more likely to be negatively influenced by stereotype threat and to practice disinvestment. The opposite was true for students with stronger markers of “blackness,” who were less likely to practice disinvestment. Massey and Owens conclude that the effects of stereotype threat aren’t consistent across a stigmatized group; they vary systematically by individual traits. In particular, black students with stronger connections to their race/ethnicity are better able to skirt the harmful effects of negative stereotypes.