Chronic Stereotype Threat and Blindness: Coping With More Than Lack of Sight

[Social Psychology]

Much is known about about how stereotype threat — the fear of behaving in a way which confirms a negative stereotype about one’s social group — undermines performance for a particular group in a particular situation, women and math for instance. Much less is known, however, about how stereotypes might threaten individuals over time and what the impact of this constant threat might be.

In a recent article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Arielle Silverman and Geoffrey Cohen examined the degree to which people with a permanent physical disability, in this case blindness, felt a chronic level of stereotype threat and to what extent that threat affected their self-integrity, well-being, their level of employment, and their willingness to confront potentially stereotype-threatening situations.

In the first of two studies, Silverman and Cohen surveyed 497 blind adults and found that those with higher levels of perceived stereotype threat had lower well-being, higher levels of stress, were more likely to be unemployed, and were less willing to take on new challenges. Critically, Silverman and Cohen found that these life outcomes were mediated by an individual’s level of self-integrity — the perception of oneself as adequate and in control of important life outcomes.

Building off these results and their previous research, in their second study Silverman and Cohen hypothesized that for blind individuals, a values-affirmation intervention — a writing exercise in which an individual writes about personally important values — might help boost self-integrity thereby reducing threat and creating more positive life outcomes. The authors administered the values-affirmation writing intervention to adult students at a school for the blind. One month after the intervention, students who had written about personally important values were rated as progressing further on measures of attitude and course performance by their instructors, when compared with the students who had only completed a control writing task.

Overall, Silverman and Cohen suggest that chronic stereotype threat can harm self-integrity by leading individuals to avoid potentially stereotype-threatening situations, which can then negatively impact well-being, stress, employment, and lead to further avoidance of threatening situations. To break this cycle, they suggest bolstering an individual’s self-integrity, in this case through a values-affirmation exercise. Finally, the authors point out that the effects of a physical disability are not just physical, but psychological as well. To fully address the challenges people with a disability continuously face, they suggest it is both beneficial and critical to incorporate appropriate psychological interventions into therapy.


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