Ted McDougal was a white student at an excellent university, taking an African American political science class. He noticed that he was one of two white students in the class. He also noticed that black students in the class used the word “we” a lot when discussing history, clearly not including him. McDougal found that he was expending more energy trying not to say the “wrong thing” in class than he was studying the material.
Steele mentioned Ted in the first chapter of the book, arguing that Ted’s behavior illustrated the relationship between individual behavior and social contingencies. This is a tricky example though, and it’s important to understand that Steele isn’t arguing for anything like “reverse racism.” Ted doesn’t experience racism or oppression because of his whiteness in his daily life or on a social or legal level, but in the specific environment of this class his behavior was affected by the fact that he was constantly made aware of his whiteness.
Steele later spoke with McDougal. McDougal said that the class had taught him an important lesson: “smartness” is also the product of one’s environment, not just one’s cognitive abilities. Steele suggested that McDougal’s caution in class had reduced his performance, and further suggested that he was experiencing threatening identity contingencies.
Ted’s behavior suggests that people of all identities can, under the right circumstances, have their cognitive abilities impaired by their awareness and fear of confirming a stereotype.
Every group on the planet is stereotyped negatively in some way. In any situation in which that group feels the weight of a negative stereotype, their behavior is likely to change in measurable ways. However, in the early 1990s, Steele still lacked evidence that his findings for blacks and women could be generalized to apply to any identity group. He wanted to pursue two questions in particular: 1) would people who’d shown no previous signs of susceptibility to a stereotype be influenced by an stereotype threat?, and 2) could stereotype threat effects be measured in other groups, as well as blacks and women? Steele first decided to pursue the first question.
As his research proceeds, Steele begins to adopt a fluid, environmental approach to identity and stereotyping. Building on Tajifel and Elliot’s experiments, which suggested that new stereotypes or group identities could be created in mere hours, Steele wants to measure if people are susceptible to the threat of a stereotype of which they’ve only just been made aware.
Steele collaborated with his colleagues and developed a measure for identity threats. High-performing, confident white math students would be pitted against Asian-American math students: white students would be given a test and told that Asian-Americans traditionally did better on the test. The beauty of the experiment was that it measured stereotype threats for people who’d rarely thought about that stereotype—in other words, it measured how white students would perform when they were made aware of the stereotype that Asian-Americans were better at math. (While it was objected that white students already knew about this stereotype, Steele reasons that positive stereotypes wouldn’t have a big impact on white students’ inferiority, since they hadn’t lived around many Asian-Americans).
Steele’s assumption in this experiment is that white students wouldn’t have devoted a lot of time to thinking about the stereotype that Asian-Americans are better at math than other races. While this seems like a somewhat dubious assumption, Steele argues that these particular white students hadn’t interacted with many Asian-Americans, and therefore didn’t think about the stereotype very often. In this way, Steele attempts to measure whether newly-fostered stereotypes can be as powerful as stereotypes that subjects have contemplated for their entire lives.
The experiment suggested that gifted white math students underperformed on the test when they were told that Asian-Americans generally did better on the test. Around the same time, a Harvard study concluded that Asian women underperformed on math tests when reminded of their gender but did better when reminded of their race. The two experiments suggested that identity contingencies exerted a major influence on different identity groups’ cognitive performance—even if the subjects hadn’t experienced a lifetime of identity contingencies.
Steele’s experiment, along with another experiment, provides further evidence for the hypothesis that one’s identity isn’t a monolithic feeling that exerts an equal influence at all times. Rather, different facets of identity can become more or less influential according to environmental factors. This further suggests that, by changing environmental factors, people can reduce the influence of stereotype threats.
Steele’s next step was to gather further evidence of “the breadth of stereotype threat effects.” By gathering this evidence, Steele was aiming to reinforce his position that behavior was as much a product of external social factors as it was a product of “internal susceptibility.”
The concept of “internal susceptibility” was at the core of the old interpretation of stereotyping—an interpretation which often devolved into victim blaming. If certain identity groups were especially susceptible to stereotyping, one could (and people did) argue, then they were also to blame for their own feelings of inferiority.
The French social psychologist Jean-Claude Croizet has spent years conducting tests measuring the impact of stereotyping on the French working classes. His studies of French students mirror Steele’s findings: working-class students did significantly worse on their tests if they were primed to think about the stereotype that working-class French people aren’t good at languages. Other researchers in North Carolina in the early 1990s found similar results for elderly people. In the years following Steele’s groundbreaking research, social psychologists have replicated his findings for many different identities, on tests measuring many different abilities—everything from athletic prowess and reaction time performance to verbal reasoning and memory.
The psychological findings discussed in this section support the notion that stereotype threats aren’t strongly associated with any one social group. Rather, stereotype threats can impact many different kinds of people’s behavior under the right (or rather, the wrong) circumstances.