In 1986, Claude Steele was a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. That spring, the University of Michigan offered him a job. He was asked to teach in the university’s social psychology department, but also to lead an academic-support program for minority students. Steele was worried that his duties with the academic-support program would interfere with his own research.
Throughout the book, Steele cuts back and forth between his own biography and the history of stereotype research. At this stage in his career, he thinks that working with minority students is distinct from his research—but he quickly comes to realize that doing so actually is his research.
On a visit to the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Steele decided that he wasn’t going to take the job, because it would impede his research. But he was impressed by the university’s mission: it was actively trying to help students from underrepresented backgrounds. After his visit, Steele decided that his career was now headed “in a different direction.”
Steele wanted to use his training and influence to help students from targeted communities, and run studies on the experiences of minority students at predominately white universities.
During his visit to Ann Arbor, Steele talked to several minority students about their experiences. These students were bright and had been successful in high school, but in college they were constantly being made aware of the fact that they were minorities. They also felt that black “styles, preferences, and interests” were ignored on campus. Also during his visit, Steele saw some provocative data about SAT scores. He read graphs showing the correlation between SAT scores and college grades, and was surprised to learn that black students were likely to receive lower grades than white students, even if they had the same SAT scores. Something, Steele realized, was “suppressing the yield” for black students. Steele resolved to study what, exactly, limited black students’ success.
Like any good scientist, Steele began by identifying a problem—the “achievement gap” between white and black students at the University of Michigan. The core of Steele’s observation is that, even when black students succeed in high school, they’re more likely to underperform their white peers when they arrive in college. Steele began to form a hypothesis to explain the evidence—that there must be some kind of environmental reason that promising black students weren’t succeeding as effectively as white students at the University of Michigan.
In 1987, Steele accepted an offer from the University of Michigan, and moved to Ann Arbor with his wife and children. There, Steele collaborated with another social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, to understand black students’ underperformance. He learned that black underperformance was a nationwide phenomenon. Other minority students, such as Latinos and Native Americans, also underperformed in college based on their SATs. Based on his discussions with black students on campus, Steele began to suspect that underperformance was the result of students’ experiences—“something in the air on campus.”
Before he began conducting studies on black students’ underperformance, Steele had to understand the full scope of the problem. The pervasiveness of minority underperformance suggested that there were environmental factors on college campuses that made minority students feel unwelcome and impeded their academic success. 1987 was milestone in Steele’s career because it signaled his choice to relocate to Michigan and, by the same token, study student achievement in more depth.
A few years later, Steele delivered a talk on his research at another institution of higher learning. During his time there, he met with researchers who’d studied the progress of minority students, and learned that minorities at the college weren’t integrated into campus life and had “segregated friendship networks,” meaning that they largely stuck with other people of their same group. While Steele talked with the other academics, he could also feel a peculiar tension in the room—as if the professors were terrified that they were going to say something racist.
As in the first chapter, Steele parallels examples of black students feeling uncomfortable with examples of white academics feeling uncomfortable (because they’re afraid of saying something offensive to black professors like Steele himself). Steele isn’t saying that what white college professors face is in any way comparable to what black students go through. Rather, his point seems to be that people of all identities feel a certain environmental pressure, which hangs like a dark cloud over their behavior.
Steele also met with black students at the college. They told him about incidents in which professors expressed racist sentiments to them, sometimes seemingly accidentally. They also noted that they felt marginalized on campus, with the result that they spent most of their time with other black students. But Steele also encountered a problem: the reported incidents of racism didn’t seem common enough to explain the performance gap between black and white students. There had to be other factors causing the gap—perhaps even a “concentration of factors.”
Right away, Steele takes the position that overt, conscious racism, while real and dangerous, isn’t the primary factor in explaining most black college students’ college performance. Rather, as he suggests in his later research, unconscious displays of prejudice, or environmental cues that trigger the fear of prejudice, are also to blame. Of course, not everyone would agree with this claim.
Steele describes the experiences of a schoolteacher named Jane Elliott in the late 1960s. Elliot tried to teach her students, who were all white, about discrimination. She divided the class based on eye color—the brown-eyed students were identified and separated from the blue-eyed students, who were given first access to “lessons and materials.” The brown-eyed students were humiliated and made to wear collars—they didn’t speak up in class, and kept to themselves. The blue-eyed students, on the other hand, were relaxed and happy. But then Elliot switched the arrangements: this time, brown-eyed students were favored and blue-eyed students were treated as inferior. Now, brown-eyed students seemed happy, and blue-eyed students were quiet. Stigmatized students also didn’t learn as well in class—they seemed to pay less attention to Elliot, and they had trouble remembering instructions.
Elliott’s experiment has been widely praised and criticized. At the core of her experiment was the idea that stereotypes and feelings of inferiority can arise, seemingly out of thin air. (After all, before Elliot organized her classroom, her students didn’t discriminate based on eye color.) Elliott’s experiment provides compelling evidence that stereotypes have a profound impact on people’s self-esteem, energy level, and cognitive capabilities. Furthermore, it suggests that stereotypes, even if they can’t be prevented altogether, can be manipulated, provoked, and—Steele hopes—neutralized.
Steele came to realize that college students were stigmatized in much the same way as the students in Jane Elliott’s classroom. The difference was that Elliott stigmatized her students on purpose, whereas American colleges did so inadvertently. In spite of their best efforts, Steele hypothesized, colleges replicated the state of American society, meaning that black students felt stigmatized, and underperformed academically as a result.
Steele suggests that the University of Michigan was inadvertently perpetuating the alienation of its black student body. As his research later shows, the university used language and practices that unknowingly provoked stereotype threats in its black students, causing them to alter their behavior and underperform on exams.
Steele collaborated with a University of Michigan researcher named Steven Spencer to understand group underperformance in college. Steele hypothesized that stigmatization caused black underperformance—certainly, it was preferable to the hypothesis that black students underperformed because of biological inferiority. Steele and Spencer tested their ideas by studying students at their own university—specifically the performance of women in high-level math classes. Initially, they noticed that women tended to underperform in math classes, but not in English classes—possibly because of the stereotype that women weren’t good at math, which created a “chilly atmosphere” in the classes.
Steele and Spencer design their study with a clear hypothesis in mind—namely, that underperformance arises from environmental factors, rather than biological inferiority. During the 1980s, the sociologists Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published a book called The Bell Curve, which entertained the hypothesis that there was a genetic basis for the difference in IQ between black and white people. While Murray and Herrnstein’s findings were very controversial, they gave Steele the motivation to disprove the genetic explanation.
Steele and Spencer prepared a study recruiting men and women who’d done well on the math section of their SATs. One by one, they administered tests—half of them in math, half in English—for the students. Steele and Spencer hypothesized that women would underperform on the math test as a result of the strong social stigmatization against women and math, while performing equally to men on the English portion. This, as it turned out, is exactly what happened. However, Spencer and Steele knew that much more research was needed.
Before Steele and Spencer tested the influence of environment on performance, they had to understand the scope of the problem—thus they measured women’s underperformance on math tests.
Why, exactly, had the women underperformed on the math test? Spencer and Steele hypothesized that they’d underperformed because they wanted to avoid the stigmatizing view of themselves. However, as scientists, Steele and Spencer also had to consider the biological explanation—i.e., that men were naturally better at math than women. In the 1980s, psychologists ran tests suggesting that women were genetically likely to be worse at math than men. Genetic explanations of behavior have been popular for a long time. Even Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, entertained the notion that women are biologically inferior to men. Summers later resigned from Harvard, partly because he proposed such a controversial hypothesis. Steele and Spencer didn’t take this hypothesis seriously, but they knew they had to test it.
Steele gives a sense for the disturbing pervasiveness of the genetic explanation for underperformance in academia. (Since the 1980s, the sociologist Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, has claimed that the case for the genetic hypothesis has only gotten stronger.) While Steele disagrees with this hypothesis (and seems to find it sickening), he knows that he needs to take it seriously, if only to disprove it. Like a good scientist, Steele keeps an open mind while also using the evidence to strengthen his hypothesis, refuting other hypotheses in the process.
Spencer and Steele had two hypotheses: 1) women underperformed because of stigmatization, or 2) women underperformed because of some biological inferiority. They needed to develop an experiment that could test the hypotheses. This was challenging, because, by definition, the stereotype of being bad at math was a part of women’s normal lives. The difficulty, then, wasn’t in facilitating women’s feelings of inferiority, but in eliminating them in a second group. In the end, Spencer and Steele decided to tell women, before they took the test, that women had always performed as well as men on this particular test.
At this point in their research, Steele and Spencer have a lot of questions about stereotypes—for example, are there situations in which stereotypes play a particularly large or small role in dictating people’s behavior? In the course of their experiment, Spencer and Steele are testing the idea of whether they can exacerbate or neutralize stereotype threats with simple verbal cues (like telling women that their test is gender-equal).
The second challenge with developing the experiment was finding a way to pit two hypotheses against one another. Spencer and Steele decided that, if women performed as well as men when the “stigma pressure” was reduced, they could reasonably conclude that stigma pressure influenced on women’s performance on math tests. If not, they’d have evidence that women really were worse at math. Spencer and Steele found that, when women were told that their test didn’t show gender differences, they performed at the same level as men, and when they weren’t given this information, or were given information highlighting gender stereotypes, they underperformed. These findings changed Spencer and Steele’s professional lives.
Steele and Spencer clearly favored one hypothesis over another (they didn't believe that there was a biological basis for women’s underperformance), but they also designed an experiment in which the hypothesis they disliked would have a fair chance to prevail. Fortunately, the environmental hypothesis “won out,” putting Steele on a path of researching the scope and power of stereotype threats.
Since their first experiments at the University of Michigan, Spencer and Steele have spent years studying the stigmatization of women. Women, they’ve found, are often confronted with the threat of “being seen to confirm society’s darker suspicions about their math ability,” a threat that impedes their performance. This is still a radical idea, because it suggests that stereotypes can be perpetuated even without people consciously perpetuating them.
At the most basic level, Steele’s research is controversial and counterintuitive because it suggests that individual people aren’t always to blame for the perpetuation of stereotypes. For example, during the math experiment, nobody in the room was expressing sexist ideas. And yet the “cloud” of sexism continued to impede the women’s test performance.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, when Steele and Spencer presented their findings, other academics misinterpreted them very slightly: they argued that Steele and Spencer’s findings just proved that women self-fulfill society’s lower performance expectations. This wasn’t quite what Spencer and Steele were arguing. Rather, they argued that there were very specific factors that could trigger women’s stigmatization, and that by removing these factors, they could improve performance. Nevertheless, they understood that they had more research to do.
Before the 1980s, social psychologists tended to take the position that minorities underperformed because their abilities had been stunted by a lifetime of prejudice (for a good example of this kind of reasoning, readers might consult Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action). Steele takes the more challenging view that underperformance because of stereotyping or prejudice is a fluid, constantly shifting process of reactions to one’s environment.