In complex social interactions, such as co-operation or competition with another person on an ability test, people tend to activate stereotypes strategically in order to achieve their self-enhancement goals. If multiple ways of categorizing the target person are available, the selected stereotypical traits that serve their motives might also depend on the specific task context in which the interaction is situated. We assumed that people selectively process trait information in order to increase their perceived chances to win in a currently performed task. We tested this hypothesis in a study in which participants were told to perform an analytical or emotional skills task having as a co-operator or rival, a multiple categorizable target person (female computer science student). In the analytical task context, we found stronger inhibition of stereotypically female traits in the co-operation than in the competition condition. In the emotional skills task context, we found stronger inhibition of computer scientist traits in the co-operation than competition condition. The interactive nature of goals and context influences on stereotype activation is discussed and some theoretical implications about the dynamics of stereotype activation processes are drawn. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.