Stereotype threat, a social psychological theory developed by Claude Steele and his colleagues, describes the fear experienced by members of a group that their performance might confirm a negative stereotype. This apprehension, as well as the added pressure to perform well, can increase anxiety and physiological arousal, trigger distracting thoughts, and reduce working memory capacity, all of which can impair performance. Even well-learned motor skills can be affected. Ironically, people who care more about their social group and performing well and have higher ability may be most vulnerable. Stereotype threat has been used to explain many important real-world problems, including why white students perform better than black students on standardized tests and why men perform better than women on math tests. Studies have shown that it even affects athletic performance.
The stereotype about the Cubs is that they are loveable losers and that they choke under pressure. Despite an impressive regular season, losing game 1 may have re-activated the stereotype for both Cubs' fans and players. Consequently, an unflattering comparison was made between the Cubs and Dodgers, a supposedly superior team. The Cubs were then at risk of confirming the negative stereotype, while the Dodgers were helped by "stereotype lift." The day after they lost game 2, the Chicago Tribune even asked the question, in an article by Paul Sullivan, "Are the Cubs choking away the NLDS?" The combination of the stereotype and a "do or die" situation, may have caused them to play "tight" and make mistakes. During game 2, each error may have increased the threat, causing even more errors. In the end, their poor performance once again confirmed the stereotype.
Recognition and understanding of stereotype threat may help to reduce its occurrence and impact. Just reminding people that anxiety is common among members of a stereotyped group has been shown to improve their performance. As a team, the Cubs could try to overcome the negative effects of stereotype threat by distancing themselves from the stereotype. They have been playing well in recent years, and there is reason to think that this "distancing" is already happening. They could also distance themselves from the curse, which is a supernatural explanation for the stereotype. Last year, before game 1 against the Dodgers, a Greek Orthodox priest blessed the Cubs' dugout in an apparent effort to remove the curse. That exorcism, although dramatic and fun, probably made the curse, and the negative stereotype about the Cubs, more salient.
Cubs' players could also try to protect themselves against the threat. Because stereotype threat occurs when a situation highlights one aspect of a person's identity, they could focus on aspects of their identities that are consistent with playing the game well. For example, a player could focus on the fact that he is an "all-star" or a "league leader," rather than a "loveable loser." They could even remind themselves of things unrelated to baseball that make them feel good about themselves. Lastly, they could think of successful role models, such as Ernie Banks or Ryne Sandberg, both of whom overcame the stereotype to be inducted into the baseball hall of fame. For better or worse, the Cubs may be cursed by a stereotype rather than a billy goat.