Stereotype Threat in Chess Performance

The Chessable Research Awards for the Spring 2023 cycle had two winners, undergraduate student Sarah Kudron and graduate student Adam DeHollander. Applications for the Fall 2023 cycle are open from May 1 to July 1, 2023.

In her blog post, Kudron explains what research has been done so far and asks Chessable users to participate in an on-going research study about stereotype threat. There are negative stereotypes about women’s performance in chess. Kudron writes, “negative stereotypes about their ability can lead to anxiety and decreased performance.”

The Impact of Stereotype Threat on Chess Performance: Investigating Gender Bias by Sarah Kudron

People interact with and are exposed to stereotypes in their daily lives, which affects how they see themselves and others. The implications of stereotypes are far-reaching, shaping behavior and performance. The term “stereotype threat” was first coined in a study by Steele & Aronson (1995) to describe the drop in test performance for individuals faced with a negative stereotype. Not only did performance suffer on the study task, but given that performing poorly validated the negative stereotype, this risked the reinforcement of such stereotypes as part of participants’ self-perception. In our study, we explore the impact of stereotypes on self-identity and examine the ways in which they affect performance. Specifically, we study how stereotypes of female and male chess players affect their performance, using the stereotype fit framework proposed by Grimm et al. (2009).

Stereotype Fit

The stereotype fit framework considers the impact of a fit or match between the stereotype, negative or positive, and the environmental context. Many performance contexts are framed in terms of approaching gains (e.g., earning points or getting answers correct) or avoiding losses (e.g., avoiding lost points or trying to minimize incorrect responses), as described by Regulatory Focus Theory (Higgins, 1997). This theory emphasizes that the reward structures mimic underlying motivational states that focus individuals on achieving positive outcomes (i.e., a promotion focus) or avoiding negative outcomes (i.e., a prevention focus), which influences and shapes behavior.

Inspired by Regulatory Fit Theory (Higgins, 1997; Shah, Higgins & Friedman, 1998), the Stereotype Fit framework highlights the advantages of creating a correspondence between the motivational state and the environmental context. Simply, matching the underlying motivational state with a corresponding reward structure improves performance.

Therefore, Grimm et al. (2009) proposed stereotype fit as a solution to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat. They theorized that creating matches between the stereotype and the environmental context would reduce the deleterious effects of stereotype threat. For example, they examined the stereotype that “women are bad at math.” Under this stereotype, women have a negative stereotype relative to men. In one of their studies using GRE math problems, they had women and men take the math test either gaining points for correct responses or losing points for incorrect responses. In the gaining points condition, women performed more poorly than men, which is the classic stereotype threat effect as the group with the negative stereotype performed more poorly. However, women in the losing points condition outperformed those in the gaining points condition, demonstrating the benefits of a stereotype fit. Women in the losing points condition were still impacted by the presence of the negative stereotype but, as they were motivationally prepared to manage the corresponding reward structure, their performance improved. In essence, stereotype fit involves aligning task reward structures with stereotypes to prime participants into different motivational states. When positive stereotypes and gains reward structures are paired or when negative stereotypes and losses reward structures are paired, optimal performance is expected. Conversely, mismatches result in performance declines. Grimm et al. (2009) argued that many of the demonstrated stereotype threat effects in the literature might be explained by the motivational mismatch between a typical testing context with a gains reward structure and a negative stereotype.

Stereotype Threat in Chess

Gender stereotype threat negatively impacts athletic and cognitive performance, especially for women. As aforementioned, women who were exposed to the stereotype that women are bad at math performed worse than men on math tests (e.g., Grimm et al., 2009; Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000; Spencer et al., 1999). It is not necessary to remind women even explicitly about the stereotype, the presence of men also causes women to experience problem-solving deficits.

In the context of chess, women are underrepresented (FIDE), and negative stereotypes about their ability can lead to anxiety and decreased performance. The study conducted by Maass et al. (2008) explored the impact of gender stereotypes on chess performance. Each of the female players was matched with a male opponent with a similar chess ability. When the female player was unaware of their opponent’s gender, they performed the same as their opponent. When the female player was primed with a gender stereotype and told they were facing a male opponent, they experienced a performance drop. Similarly, Rothgerber et al. (2013) documented that stereotype threat can be seen in young female chess players in naturalistic environments. Therefore, stereotype threat in real-world situations results in a decline in the performance of female players, especially when these female players face male opponents.


This study aims to explore the impact of stereotypes on the performance of female and male chess players using the stereotype fit model of Grimm et al. (2009) with a gains and losses framework. If possible, based on the participant sample, the study will also explore how these stereotypes affect non-binary players. The following hypotheses have been proposed:

  1. Male chess players will perform better than female chess players in a gains points system, demonstrating the classic stereotype threat effect.
  2. Male chess players will perform better in a gains points system as compared to a losses points system, demonstrating the positive impact of stereotype fit.
  3. Female chess players will perform better than male chess players in a losses reward structure, demonstrating that creating a stereotype fit will remove the performance advantage of men seen in the stereotype threat comparison, and better than other females in a gains points system, further demonstrating the positive impact of stereotype fit.


Currently, data collection for this study is still ongoing with the pilot phase of data collection completed and initial case study data available with 7 participants: 1 woman and 6 men. A “call to action” blog post published by Chessable and an email to participants in a prior study recruited the current case study data. Data collection is ongoing and will continue through 2023. Anyone interested in supporting data collection needs to be at least 18 years old, have an Elo rating of 1000-1400, and be familiar with chess notation. Please contact Sarah Kudron at [email protected] for further information about how to participate.

The online study takes no more than 30 minutes and involves completing 30 enjoyable mate-in-three chess puzzles from Chess Akt (2021) with feedback provided after each puzzle. Participants are given a 90-second time limit to solve each puzzle.

Design and Procedure

The experiment has a 2 Gender (Male, Female) x 2 Reward Structure (Gains, Losses) design. Participants are randomly assigned to one of the two reward structures and reminded of the well-known stereotype that women are bad at chess.

Participants in the gains and losses conditions receive different points as part of their puzzle feedback with the goal of getting 50% of the puzzles correct. For the gains condition, participants start with 0 points and try to reach 90 points. They gain 5 points for correct answers, 2 points for reasonable answers, and 1 point for incorrect answers. For the losses condition, participants start with 0 points and try to avoid reaching -90 points. They lose 1 point for correct answers, 4 points for reasonable answers, and 5 points for incorrect answers. Timers count up for gains and count down for losses. Corrective feedback is provided for all responses. Participants are also asked to answer questions about their chess identity, provide basic demographic data, and are debriefed.


As the data collection is still ongoing, we can report that the current mean age of the participants is 46.4 years (SD = 19.7), and the average Elo rating of the participants is 1250. Preliminary results suggest that men in the gains condition have outperformed the woman in the gains condition, men had an average score of 101.67 while the woman had a score of 78. Men in the gains condition also outperformed men in losses, with an average difference from the optimal score being 48.33 and 65.33, respectively. However, as the data collection is still in progress, these results are subject to change.


The ongoing data collection for our study suggests that stereotypes may have an impact on chess performance. Preliminary results show the classic stereotype threat effect for women in chess, and a stereotype fit effect such that male chess players in the gains reward structure performed better than male chess players in the losses reward structure. These initial findings are consistent with previous research showing that stereotype threat and stereotype fit can affect performance in competitive settings.

As this research continues, we will be including more participants in the study and expanding our age range to collect data from younger participants, pending approval by our Institutional Review Board.

The preliminary findings of this ongoing study have practical implications for the field of chess and stereotype threat. Chess organizations could consider implementing different reward structures to accommodate different playing styles and preferences, which could improve the inclusivity and diversity of the sport.


Chess AKT. (2021). 500 Chess Puzzles: Mate in 3, Intermediate Level. Blurb, Inc.

FIDE International Chess Federation. Top lists. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from

Grimm, L. R., Markman, A. B., Maddox, W. T., & Baldwin, G. C. (2009). Stereotype threat reinterpreted as a regulatory mismatch. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 288–304.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280–1300.

Inzlicht, M., & Ben-Zeev, T. (2000). A threatening intellectual environment: Why females are susceptible to experiencing problem-solving deficits in the presence of males. Psychological Science, 11(5), 365–371.

Maass, A., D’Ettole, C., & Cadinu, M. (2008). Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(2), 231–245.

Rothgerber, H., & Wolsiefer, K. (2013). A naturalistic study of stereotype threat in young female chess players. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(1), 79–90.

Shah, J., Higgins, E. T., & Friedman, R. S. (1998). Performance incentives and means: How regulatory focus influences goal attainment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 285–293.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 4–28.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

Applications for the Fall 2023 cycle of the Chessable Research Awards are from May to July 1, 2023. The Chessable Research Awards are for undergraduate and graduate students conducting university-level chess research. Chess-themed topics may be submitted for consideration and ongoing or new research is eligible. Each student must have a faculty research sponsor.

Each winning undergraduate student gets $500, and their faculty research sponsor also gets $500. Each winning graduate student gets $1,000, and their faculty research sponsor gets $500. There are three cycles of Chessable Research Awards given each year. For more information, or to apply, please go to

You May Also Like