The mathematician Philip Uri Treisman has developed workshops designed to help students overcome stereotypes. Years before, Treisman studied the way different racial groups learn mathematics. He found that white students studied more independently, and focused less of their social lives on academics, than Asian students, who helped each other and studied together. Black students were the most independent in their study habits, however—they studied for longer and made a point of isolating themselves when they worked. They also didn’t talk as much about their academics, which made them less likely to realize that they weren’t the only ones struggling with the material, and more likely to question whether they belonged in the class (or even the college—one student whose story Steele shares dropped out of Berkeley altogether). In short, Treisman found that black students were trying very hard to succeed, but were “trying to do it all by themselves” in a field where “pooling intellectual resources” was key.
Research suggests that different racial groups—responding to different sets of identity contingencies—study in different ways. But certain ways of studying are more successful than others, especially in particular educational environments. Black students’ general propensity for studying alone for long hours can be counterproductive, because it gives them the false impression that they’re the only people who are having difficulty with the material, and therefore provokes the feeling that they’re inadequate and don’t deserve to be in school at all.
Steele’s close friend Carol Porter is a social psychologist at Princeton, and she’s studied the ways different kinds of students study organic chemistry, traditionally one of the most difficult courses at Princeton. Many Princeton students will sit through the class twice—the first time just to learn, the second time for a grade. Other students try to take the class in a less competitive summer school, and then get the credit transferred. Porter has found that even when they are advised to do so, black students are considerably less likely to use either strategy—instead they "push on" and sit through the class once, for a grade, thus often getting a lower grade and jeopardizing their chances of getting into medical school later on.
Further research supports the hypothesis that black students, largely as a result of their socially-determined identity contingencies, tend to "over-effort" in order to disprove negative stereotypes—but this "over-efforting" often leads to diminished performance in the end. This is an important idea because it could help explain the achievement gap between white and black students at elite universities.
Steele collaborated with David Nussbaum, a graduate student, to study “over-effort” in a laboratory setting. Nussbaum and Steele developed an ingenious way to measure over-effort. Students would be asked to solve difficult anagram puzzles. Then they’d be asked to choose additional anagram problems to solve, and could pick how many they wanted to do. This was designed to measure students’ drive to succeed—their desire to continue challenging themselves with difficult material, even after they’d failed to do well. The experiment showed that black students performed as well as white students, and chose as many additional problems, when the test was framed as just another test. But when the test was framed as a test of cognitive ability, black students chose significantly more anagram puzzles than white students. Like hardworking black students trying to overcome prejudice, the black subjects were pushing themselves harder, exemplifying over-effort.
Nussbaum’s study mirrors Treisman’s findings by suggesting that black students push themselves too hard—at least partly because they feel that they have something to prove, and want to overcome the racist stereotype that they’re mentally inferior to their classmates. The experiment further suggests that black students may be more academically successful when they relax more and don’t push themselves so hard to prove stereotypes wrong.
Minorities face many challenges in life, and often they’re encouraged to work extra hard to overcome society’s stereotypes—Jackie Robinson is the perfect example. This extra motivation for minorities—breaking the stereotype—isn’t necessarily good or bad, Steele claims. It can inspire people to work harder, but it can also interfere with their confidence and concentration.
Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player to break the “color barrier” in professional baseball. Robinson is often considered a model for how minorities can succeed through hard work and extra perseverance. Steele’s point is that, while Robinson’s achievement is extremely impressive, the extra challenge of overcoming society’s prejudices usually doesn’t inspire minorities to succeed—rather, it just gives them an extra source of stress, frustration, and self-doubt.
Steele then asks a new question. The previous studies he's referenced have had to do with "work at the frontier of a person's skills"—but how do stereotype threats affect people when they're doing work that is at a lower level, or that they're very comfortable with? A study at the University of Kansas aimed to measure how the “breaking a stereotype” motive affected people’s performance at both upper and lower levels of work. Students were given two math tests, one easy and one difficult. One group took the tests under a stereotype threat about women, while others took the tests under a mitigated stereotype threat. The results showed that women did considerably worse on the difficult test while under a stereotype threat—but significantly better on the easier test. The stereotype threat was apparently enough to distract them slightly on the hard problems, but enough to drive them to greater success on the easier ones.
This study adds nuance to Steele's findings, and shows that at some levels, "pushing on" to disprove a stereotype can actually help improve performance. This complicates things, though, when one reaches the "frontier" of one's skills—then the stereotype threat is much more of a hindrance than a help.
The motive to disprove a stereotype can turn people from a stereotyped group into overachievers—it gives them drive to succeed, where other groups of people feel no incentive to work hard. However, this extra drive to succeed isn’t always good. It may cause extra stress, for example, which can interfere with performance—and it's just exhausting to have to be constantly working to disprove a stereotype. This shouldn’t suggest that there’s no point in trying hard, Steele says, but it’s a fact that “ease of performance” is an important factor in succeeding in a great many fields—therefore, the attempt to break a stereotype can impede ease of performance, and therefore success.
Steele acknowledges that wanting to succeed in the face of prejudice can, by itself, motivate people to succeed where they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to summon the drive. In general, however, this motive also acts as an obstacle to success, because it causes people from underrepresented groups to because frustrated and exhausted. And, of course, we usually only see examples of shining successes—those who overcame great odds—but not the many others who were worn down or sabotaged by trying to overcome those same odds.
Treisman’s workshops are designed to correct for black students’ tendencies to “commit to self-sufficiency”—he essentially has black students study more like the Asian students he researched, and do work in groups and help each other. His research, and that of other psychologists, has shown that the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Working extra hard to overcome a stereotype can be inspiring, but it may also be counterproductive, because it limits people’s success, and causes them to blame themselves for their failures.
Treisman summarizes the point Steele has been making thus far: overall, over-effort in order to combat a stereotype leads to more failure than success. This idea has larger social ramifications as well—going against (or at least adding nuance to) a general American ideal that the harder one works and the more obstacles one overcomes, the more deserving and successful one will inherently be.