Provost’s New Book Explores the Consequences of Stereotyping

by Bridget O'Brian

It happens to us all, perhaps several times a day: Someone makes a judgment about you based on how you look, your age, your gender, even your name. Or, we make such judgments about others.

Claude Steele delivering a University Lecture on Sept. 29, 2009 (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Claude Steele delivering a University Lecture on Sept. 29, 2009
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Claude Steele has spent much of his academic career examining the impact of stereotyping and how it can affect individual performance in a range of educational and professional settings. Now he has turned his groundbreaking exploration of “stereotype threat” into a new book, Whistling Vivaldi, and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. It’s part of a series edited by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., called Issues of Our Times, published last month by W.W. Norton & Co.

“Identities are not just choices,” Steele says. “In real life, the ones that are important to us and how we function are those that are tied to big contingencies in life, things we have to deal with because we have the identity.”

Steele, a social psychologist completing his first year as University provost, describes stereotype threat as “simply being in a situation where a negative stereotype about one of your identities could apply. Then you know you could be judged or treated in terms of that stereotype.”

Whistling Vivaldi uses real-life examples and the results of many scientific experiments to illustrate this theory, and makes the crucial point that stereotype threat is not limited to race. It can be seen in situations involving gender, age and other examples of group identity.

For example, when Steele was growing up in Chicago, a powerful contingency he faced was learning that he could swim in the local pool only on Wednesday afternoons, when non-whites were permitted to use it. But today, at age 63, his age can pose a greater stereotype threat. He recalls meeting the 26-year-old chief executive officer of a Silicon Valley start-up. “If I had to work there—and thank God I didn’t—I would be thinking about age all the time. I’d be wondering, ‘Could they ever believe that somebody my age could write good software? Would they listen to me? Would I be part of their social group?”

Such preoccupations are evident in some of the experiments Steele and his colleagues have done. When men and women of similar math abilities were given a difficult test, the women frequently did worse than the men. Yet the two groups did equally well when, before taking the test, the women were told that the societal stereotype about women’s math ability was irrelevant to their performance on that test. “The finding shows how stereotype threat can depress women’s math performance and how much that performance can be improved when it is lifted,” he says.

So it is with race, he adds. “If you give blacks an IQ test and tell them it’s an IQ test or a measure of cognitive abilities, they will often do worse than whites,” Steele says. “You give them exactly the same test but tell them that it’s just a puzzle and has nothing to do with intelligence, they perform just as well as whites in the sample.”

Steele also points out that there are those who try not to look their age—or deny their race—to escape the burden of being seen stereotypically. One chapter in his book tells the intriguing story of Anatole Broyard, a light-skinned black man from Louisiana, who, after World War II, moved to New York City, changed his identification, shed his black wife and child, and remade his life as a white man. He had a second family with a white wife and became a literary star as a book reviewer for The New York Times—opportunities that would never have been open to him at the time as a black man.

“It really illustrates what the identity contingencies tied to being African American were in that time and place,” Steele says. “They wouldn’t be the same for him now.”

People make life decisions based on the contingencies they see as going with the identities they have in particular situations, he says, and may opt for a different life or another career because they see the contingencies tied to one of their identities in some domain of life.

“I think people do these identity calculations all the time about what walks of life they’re going to be comfortable in,” Steele says. “Even though we have the illusion of being completely individual and making free choices, the contingencies tied to our various identities have major effects on the choices we make in life, and that, too, is what the book is about.”

Steele says his findings ultimately provide a hopeful message and show that schools and workplaces can develop practices that can diminish stereotype threat and allow individuals to thrive. He describes an intervention study at University of Michigan designed to help black students do better—in an indirect manner.

First-year students were brought together on Thursday nights in groups of 15 in similar ethnic proportions as the rest of campus, about three or four black students in each—gatherings that got the students out of their habit of spending time mostly with friends of their own race. As the groups chatted over pizza about personal things and got to know each other, the students realized they had similar problems and faced comparable issues unrelated to race: money troubles, fights with their parents, a problem with a professor. “The discussions made those revelations interracial,” Steele says. “The black kids could say, ‘I see, you’ve got problems, too.’”

The black students’ grades went up and stayed higher for the rest of their time in school. “By seeing the fact that all other people have the same things to deal with, it becomes clear to me that those are not contingencies of race,” Steele said. “If they happen to everybody, then it’s no big deal; it doesn’t carry that extra threat.”

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