In interacting with neighbors, friends, and clients, it is often clear that generalizing a group of people as possessing an undesirable trait (e.g., stupidity, laziness, manipulativeness) is harmful. But what about a desirable trait? Surely it cannot hurt to tell someone that you love how their group is so smart and hardworking?
This blog post will share research surrounding the harms of such form of microaggression faced by Asian Americans: the “model minority” stereotype.
The model minority myth is considered a “positive stereotype”—or a stereotype that generalizes a group with seemingly desirable attributes. The model minority stereotype includes ascribing Asian Americans intelligence, diligence, and law-abidingness. Some examples of this stereotype are the portrayals of Asians as mathematical geniuses, musical prodigies, and hardworking immigrants who have achieved the “American Dream.” Consistently, white American college students presented with photographed faces of eight Asian Americans rated the Asian Americans as significantly more intelligent than the photographed faces of Hispanic and white Americans and more conscientious than white Americans.3
The model minority myth places high expectations on Asian Americans, leading to feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, psychological problems, and suicidality.8 Compounding these negative effects on mental health, the model minority stereotype may also discourage Asian Americans from seeking help. Asian Americans are less likely to seek mental health services and are more likely to present with greater severity of symptoms when they do seek services, compared to white Americans.1 The sources of this reluctance are numerous, including the role of shame among many Asian cultures and the general unavailability of culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health resources13, which may require larger level changes. Importantly, greater internalization (AKA belief) of the model minority myth is also linked to lower likelihood of seeking mental health treatment.7 Further, when exposed to the model minority stereotype, individuals were less likely to detect clinical symptoms and more likely to perceive better mental health functioning for a member of that group.2,4 Thus, individuals affected by the model minority myth are likely under-treated.
The model minority stereotype is especially pervasive and may discourage help-seeking behaviors among Asian Americans for several reasons.
Although positive stereotypes can be harmful and persistent, they can also be addressed. Here are some suggestions:
1. Chen, S., Sullivan, N. Y., Lu, Y. E., & Shibusawa, T. (2003). Asian Americans and mental health services: A study of utilization patterns in the 1990s. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 12(2), 19-42.
2. Cheng, A. W., Chang, J., O’Brien, J., Budgazad, M. S., & Tsai, J. (2017). Model minority stereotype: Influence on perceived mental health needs of Asian Americans. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 19(3), 572-581.
3. Cheryan, S., & Monin, B. (2005). Where are you really from?: Asian Americans and identity denial. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(5), 717-730.
4. Devine, P. G., & Elliot, A. J. (1995). Are racial stereotypes really fading? The Princeton trilogy revisited. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(11), 1139-1150.
5. Gupta, A., Szymanski, D. M., & Leong, F. L. (2011). The “model minority myth”: Internalized racialism of positive stereotypes as correlates of psychological distress, and attitudes toward help-seeking. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 2, 101-114. doi:10.1037/a0024183
6. Keller, J. (2005). In genes we trust: the biological component of psychological essentialism and its relationship to mechanisms of motivated social cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(4), 686.
7. Kim, P. Y., & Lee, D. (2014). Internalized model minority myth, Asian values, and help-seeking attitudes among Asian American students. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(1), 98-106.
8. Kim, B. S., & Park, Y. S. (2008). East and Southeast Asian Americans. In G. Mcauliffe (Ed.), Culturally alert counseling: A comprehensive introduction (pp. 189–219). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
9. Lambert, A. J., Khan, S. R., Lickel, B. A., & Fricke, K. (1997). Mood and the correction of positive versus negative stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(5), 1002-1016.
10. Lee, S. M. (1998). Asian Americans: Diverse and growing. Population Bulletin, 53(2). Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.
11. Mae, L., & Carlston, D. E. (2005). Hoist on your own petard: When prejudiced remarks are recognized and backfire on speakers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(3), 240-255.
12. Siy, J. O., & Cheryan, S. (2013). When compliments fail to flatter: American individualism and responses to positive stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 87-102.
13. Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (1999). Counseling the culturally different: Theory and practice (3rd edition). New York: Wiley.
14. Sue, D. W., Bucceri, J., Lin, A. I., Nadal, K. L., & Torino, G. C. (2009). Racial microaggressions and the Asian American experience. Asian American Journal of Psychology, S1, 88-101.
15. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Mental health:
Culture, race, and ethnicity—A supplement to Mental Health: A Report
of the Surgeon General. Retrieved from http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/reports/
About the Author:
Dahyeon Kim is a doctoral candidate in the Clinical Sciences program at the University of Notre Dame. She received her B.A. in Cognitive Sciences and Psychology from Rice University. As a part of the Cognition, Emotion, and Emotional Disorders Lab, she studies the cognitive and behavioral aspects of emotions and emotional disorders. To date, her work has centered on autobiographical memory biases in depression.