Author: Claude M. Steele
APA Style Citation
Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Brent Staples is currently a columnist for the New York Times but years ago as a student at the University of Chicago, he found that as he walked around the streets of the Hyde Park neighbourhood near the University, couples would lock arms as he approached, conversations ended, and people stared straight ahead when he said "hello." Staples gradually realized that people were frightened of a casually dressed black man near a neighborhood known for violence. He began to whistle Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which made people relax because they assumed that a person familiar with classical music was not a threat to them and likely he was affiliated with the University. Claude Steele uses Staple’s example to introduce the idea of how stereotypes can impact our lives in many different settings, whether it is violence, academic performance, or athletic performance, others expectations of us can negatively impact our performance, which does not always reflect our true ability but may in some cases become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Steele, who was raised in a Chicago neighborhood close to Hyde Park faced his own experiences with discrimination. As a boy, he could only swim at the public pool once per week because the remaining days were restricted to “whites only” swimming. He thought, “Wednesdays were swimming days” until he found that it was only because of his race that he was restricted to a single day of swimming. Steele’s particular interest in the subject of stereotype threat came while visiting the University of Michigan; he found that high-achieving African-American students were not doing as well as their Caucasian counterparts when attending the University despite actually recording more study time and dedication to their classes. Steele found the same phenomenon at other campuses and eventually found that African-Americans were actually attempting to overcome the stereotypes that they could not keep up at competitive universities by studying harder and longer. In order to remain competitive, however, they were isolating themselves whereas others were relying on friends and classmates to help them through areas in which they individually struggled, thus improving the scores for all participants in the study group. Steele cites the work of Jane Elliott who found that treating students differently based on their eye color was enough to cause dramatic differences in the ways in which children with the “wrong” eye color were treated by their peers and the expectations held regarding their behavior. Steele found that skin color at prestigious universities created a similar result even if the behavior was not as explicit as Elliott’s demonstration.
Women performed worse in advanced math classes where they are underrepresented but not in advanced English classes where there are higher numbers of women. Caucasians perform worse on a golf task when told it is a test of athletic ability but not when there is no mention of the assessment relating to athletic ability. It matters less whether the individual believes the stereotype himself or herself but rather if they believe that others hold the stereotype about them. If women were told a test they were taking demonstrated gender differences, they performed worse than men, but when told the test (the same test) did not demonstrate gender differences women’s scores equaled their male counterparts. When academic tasks were removed from a “measurement of intellectual abilities”, differences between higher performing blacks and whites was removed. Mikel Jollet, a student at Stanford (and later lead singer of the band Airborne Toxic Event), wanted to see if there were similar effects at a low-performing high schools in Los Angeles. The research found that the stereotype of coming from an inner-city school impacted performance in higher performing students when the exam was identified as diagnostic of individual differences in ability but the differences disappeared when the test was described as a test of problem-solving in general. Positive identities do little to relate to stereotype threat and often go unnoticed whereas negative expectations are difficult to ignore. Which often leads those who have not faced stereotype threat to just “prove them wrong” which is certainly more easily said than done. Typically, the individual will experience stereotype threat most when they are tested to the limit of their abilities and frustrated by a task. In these cases, they feel pressure not to confirm the stereotype, but their anxiety causes them to become more likely to confirm the negative stereotype. If they are not frustrated or if the task easily falls within their ability range, they are less likely to succum stereotype threat. This threat exists outside of the perceived autonomy of an individual but can nonetheless impact behavior. These threats can range from racial class, social class, or gender achievement class and perhaps others that have yet to be investigated.
Research into the brain processes that occur during these events are ongoing, but Steele focuses the last portion of the book on investigating methods for overcoming stereotype threat. Some of these strategies are simple protocols in test standardization while others are more complex and require changing perspectives to using simplified categories to explain others behaviors. FMRI research has demonstrated that those taking a difficult mathematical exam use regions of the prefrontal cortex and neural networks that have been demonstrated to be associated with mathematical reasoning but those under the threat used areas associated with social and emotional reasoning (limbic system) and less activity was recorded in the prefrontal cortex which may explain the decline in performance.
After finding that stereotype threat exists and negatively impacts behavior in numerous situations and across many different groups, it was time to determine how to eliminate the threat, which is still ongoing. While there are not one-size fits all solutions, some preliminary research has suggested that there are methods of eliminating or reducing the level of the threat. In school performance, it was found that writing self-affirmations eliminated the difference the threat created, this seems to be more effective with motivated students taught by motivated instructors and less helpful for those who are not academically motivated or taught by less effective instructors. Cross-group conversations are helpful in reducing stereotypes by allowing the people in the conversation to be seen as individuals not simply members of a stereotyped group. The contact theory reduced negative behavioral outcomes. Framing the outcome of the test differently may reduce the threat and asking students to identify demographics (gender, race, etc.) at the conclusion rather than the start of an exam may reduce the impact of stereotype threat. While Steele acknowledges that there is still much work to be done, he is enthusiastic that the conversation has begun and gained traction, it will continue in order to give everyone a chance to show their true abilities rather than reflect the beliefs that others hold about one’s abilities.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Implicit Associations Test (IAT)
Other Related Resources
NPR Podcast with Claude Steele
Youtube clip of Claude Steele Discussing Stereotype Threat
When You Forget to Whistle Vivaldi
Reducing Stereotype Threat
American Psychological Association: Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap
The Atlantic: Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students
Stereotype Threat: Definitions. Examples and Theories
Students Learn an Important Lesson About Privilege