The social psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted an experiment in which they asked male students to walk across a narrow, rickety bridge. Then, each student completed a questionnaire with an attractive female interviewer, who then gave the student her phone number and invited him to call her if he had any questions. Aron and Dutton were trying to measure if the students would mistake their own anxiety while crossing the bridge for attraction to the interviewer. They found that students who’d just crossed the scary bridge were likelier to call the interviewer than students who took the questionnaire after crossing a lower, more stable bridge, or who were met by a male interviewer after crossing the scary bridge. This suggests that people can’t always make sense of their own emotions—they confuse one emotion for another.
In this chapter, Steele explores the relationship between subjects’ emotions and their impressions of their own emotions. As Dutton and Aron’s experiment suggests, people can’t always describe their own emotions accurately—sometimes, indeed, they confuse one emotion with another (in this case, they confuse anxiety with sexual attraction). This might be because of several reasons, but one is that the physical symptoms of many differing emotions are actually quite similar.
Steele and his colleagues ran into a similar problem when measuring identity threats—people can’t always understand their own emotions. In their previous tests with black students and stereotype threats, the students didn’t report feeling anxiety—even though their actions (filling in words reflecting the negative stereotype, choosing "whiter" interests over "blacker" ones, etc.) suggested that they were indeed feeling anxiety. As Aron and Dutton’s research suggests, it might just be that they didn't know they were feeling anxiety.
Dutton and Aron’s findings illustrate the difficulty of measuring something as subjective stereotype threats. Even if people are experiencing stereotype threats, they might not be aware of it.
Steele collaborated with a team of researchers from Santa Barbara to measure the physiological components of anxiety, such as blood pressure, in conjunction with stereotype threats. For this experiment, black and white students’ heart rate and blood pressure were recorded, and then they took a test—with half of them receiving cues designed to evoke stereotypes. Then the students were examined once again. The experiment concluded that black students’ blood pressure dropped when they were told that their test was “race fair.” White students’ blood pressure dropped when they were told that the test measured intelligence. Thus part of the impact of a stereotype threat was physical: it changed people’s blood pressure and heart rate. Another study showed that this physiological proof of anxiety could be created simply by the anticipation of a stereotype threat—by showing that women did worse on handwriting exercises if they knew that a difficult math test would follow.
In spite of the difficulty of measuring stereotype threats, Steele found physiological evidence—an important quantitative way to verify his results. Even if the subjects involved in the experiment didn’t realize that they were experiencing anxiety, the physiological data told a different story.
Steele’s next step was to study the impact that stereotype threats had on mental faculties. Already, Jean-Claude Croizet had conducted important experiments to measure this phenomenon. Croizet knew that there is a strong correlation between the regularity of the heartbeat and the “cognitive load.” In other words, when people think hard, the interval between their heartbeats tends to be more regular. With this in mind, Croizet administered tests that pitted psychology majors against “hard science” majors, referencing his university's stereotype that science majors were smarter than psychology majors. Croizet found that psychology majors scored lower than hard science majors when the test was presented as an IQ test, but not when the test was presented as “non-diagnostic of intelligence.” Interestingly, when psychology majors taking the “intelligence test” thought harder (as measured by the regularity of their heartbeats), they did worse—but when science majors thought harder, they did better. In other words, hard science majors, free from stereotyping pressure, were able to focus almost all of their hard thinking on the test. Psychology majors thought just as hard, but seemed to “waste” some of their concentration on the stereotype threat, rather than the test.
Croizet’s research illustrates some strengths and weaknesses of behavioral psychology. Psychological experimenters have no way of understanding exactly what their test subjects are thinking, so they have to devise ways of approximating their subjects’ thoughts. In this case, for example, Croizet was able to get a rough sense his subjects’ level of concentration by measuring their heart rate. Croizet’s findings support the notion that stereotype threats interfere with a subject’s ability to concentrate fully on completing an exam. This again helps explain the achievement gap between white students and students from minority groups—the latter group has to contend with more stereotype threats distracting them.
Steele interprets Croizet’s findings to suggest that stereotyping can impede mental faculties. When people face stereotyping, their minds race, and they can’t concentrate on cognitive challenges. Researchers at the University of Arizona have found that the stereotyped, “racing mind” has three qualities: 1) vigilance regarding the stereotype, 2) self-doubt, and 3) constant self-monitoring of one’s behavior. Later on, researchers used fMRI technology to scan the brains of female math students subjected to stereotype threats while they were taking a math test. The scans suggested that women’s mental activity in the part of the brain associated with mathematics was reduced as a consequence of the stereotype threat—but activity in the part of the brain associated with "vigilance to one's social context and to emotion" was heightened.
Further experiments strengthen the case for physiological evidence of stereotyping anxiety. Once again we see that the added challenge of thinking about the stereotype associated with one’s group, particularly if the stereotype is negative, distracts test-takers from concentrating on the test itself. The women in the fMRI scanner were thinking very hard, but they were wasting a lot of this brainwork on the stereotype threat instead of the math problems at hand.
When people feel that they’re being stereotyped, or in danger of confirming a stereotype, their minds race, their blood pressure rises, and they perspire. Furthermore, they might not even be aware that they're experiencing this kind of anxiety. But in the mid-1990s, Steele still had another question: “Is there any evidence of what long-term exposure to identity threats does to people?”
So far, Steele has been studying the impact of stereotype threats in controlled, short-term environments (classrooms). But now, he wants to apply his research to different settings, over a longer period of time.
Sherman James, an epidemiologist, grew up in South Carolina and received his Ph.D. from Washington University. He later taught at the University of North Carolina, where his research focused on racial disparities in health, especially the high rates of hypertension in the black community. James interviewed a black hypertension victim named John Henry Martin. Martin had grown up brutally poor and had gradually worked his way to success, but then suffered from hypertension and ulcers at an early age. Martin's name (and his life story) reminded James of the folk legend of John Henry, a railway worker who was challenged to drive railroad spikes faster than a new spike-driving machine, defeated the machine, and died from exhaustion as a result. James began to think of the John Henry legend as a metaphor for hypertension. Just as John Henry tried to defeat the machine, John Henry Martin, James now opined, had spent a lifetime trying to run away from black stereotypes—and though he had largely succeeded, his health had suffered as a result.
Sherman James’s research further strengthens the case for physiological evidence of stereotyping anxiety. Martin’s lifelong hypertension, it could be argued, reflects the added anxiety he had to deal with as a result of being a poor black man in an often racist country. This added anxiety would explain why black people tend to suffer from hypertension to a greater degree than white people—it’s not a result of their genes, but rather a result of their accumulated social experiences.
James began to test his hypothesis among black men in South Carolina. He found that there was a noticeable positive correlation in the black community between hypertension rates, ambition, and awareness of stereotypes. Ambitious black people were much more likely to suffer from hypertension than white people who reported the same level of ambition.
James’s research reflects Mikel’s findings in inner-city Los Angeles schools: the most motivated, hard-working black people are also the most likely to suffer, both physically and mentally, from the “cloud” of stereotypes and identity contingencies.
The implication of the research Steele has discussed in this chapter is disturbing: wanting to succeed and caring deeply about success has a heavy price. The pressure to succeed can cause health problems and impair mental faculties. If society is to reduce this problem, people first need to understand the scope of identity pressure—a topic that Steele will explore in the following chapter.
The bitter irony of Steele’s findings is that, while minorities have been accused of underperforming because they’re lazy or inferior to white people, the reality is that sometimes they underperform precisely because they’re so talented, motivated, and ambitious.