In 1967, Steele began graduate school in social psychology at Ohio State University. Like every other graduate student, he was very intimidated. He was also the only black student in his program, and as a result, he had an “extra layer of concern.” He sometimes felt as if he didn’t belong in the program at all—a thought that occurs to almost every graduate student, sooner or later, but one that Steel believes he had particularly often. Steele liked and respected his classmates and professors in graduate school, and felt that his peers were being very supportive. But he continued to feel a strong sense that he didn’t belong.
Steele strengthens his arguments by citing examples from his own personal experience. As a black student in a predominately white academic environment, Steele felt considerable anxiety and unease—which surely affected his academic performance in at least some way.
Before Steele talks about what can be done to fix the problem of stigmatization at schools, he wants to show how pervasive this problem really is. In 1988, a man named Bill Bowen became the president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and launched a study that examined groups of students from elite schools, including many students admitted through affirmative action programs. Bowen also presided over another study, conducted by the sociologists Elinor Barber and Stephen Cole, designed to measure how students’ identities shaped their college experiences. Students’ grades were measured, along with their race and class. The study provided evidence that identity threats acted as a barrier to success for many different minorities.
It’s crucial to notice how recent a lot of the research into the achievement gap is: it’s only within the last thirty or forty years that organizations like the Andrew Mellon Foundation have compiled authoritative data on the academic performances of students from a minority background. This would explain why Steele’s research is still considered so radical in some circles—the research is relatively new, so social psychologists’ interpretations of the data have yet to catch on.
While Steele was in graduate school, his adviser was a man named Thomas Ostrom. While Steele faced a lot of identity cues—such as constant mentions of who in his program was “smart,” and a professor who used the “N” word in class, his relationship with Ostrom was an important factor in neutralizing these negative cues. Ostrom was a kind, relaxed man, and he treated Steele like an equal.
Steele experiences identity cues, even though he doesn’t mention any explicitly racist people (with the exception of his professor who uses the “N” word—why he does so is never explained). This reiterates the point that stereotype threats persist even in the absence of individuals expressing bigotry or prejudice of some kind.
Years later, a graduate student named Geoffrey Cohen tested the effectiveness of mentors working with minority students. Cohen was interested in answering the question, “How does a white teacher give critical feedback to a black student so that the feedback is trusted and motivating?” Cohen organized an experiment that involved black and white Stanford students writing an essay about their favorite teacher. The students were invited back, two days later, to receive feedback on their writing. A white professor offered each student feedback in one of three ways: 1) starting with praise and then providing feedback, 2) trying to be fair and neutral, or 3) using high standards to judge the essay, but stressing that the essay could meet those standards with extra work. Black students reported being most receptive to the third style. This was the kind of feedback that Ostrom gave Steele years ago.
Cohen’s research was a milestone in the study of how to neutralize the impact of identity cues. By determining that there are forms of feedback that don’t alienate (and in fact affirm) black students, Cohen was able to show that black students could live up to their potential in an academic atmosphere, rather than being crushed under the weight of identity threats in a white-dominated environment.
Why was the third form of feedback so effective for black students? It emphasized that the professor didn’t think the student was stupid, because the professor was using high standards. It also showed respect for the student, since the professor stressed that he believed the student was capable of meeting high standards. Steele now wanted to test the strength of the third form of feedback in other settings.
Rigorous but encouraging feedback can be a powerful force for helping black students succeed in academia—and, in general, this form of feedback can be useful in canceling out some of the most pervasive and damaging identity threats.
Steele began to study the experiments of a young professor named Greg Walton, who studied under Geoffrey Cohen. Walton wanted to study ways of helping minority students feel more positively about their college experiences. In the experiment he ran, the results suggested that black freshmen who were given a “narrative intervention” did measurably better in their next semester than black freshmen who didn’t. By “narrative intervention,” Walton meant a lecture—delivered only once, in less than an hour—emphasizing that the frustration and anxiety the black freshmen were feeling was natural for all freshmen, and would gradually vanish over the next three years.
Walton’s experiments into narrative intervention are important because they show how simple, easily implemented strategies can improve minority students’ performance for months to come. One problem with using these strategies in a real, non-experimental setting, however, is that narrative intervention would seem to be most effective when minority students don’t realize they’re receiving it at all—for example, in Walton’s study, the black freshmen probably aren’t explicitly told that the experiment measures their receptiveness to encouragement.
Steele later ran a similar experiment in which freshmen were asked to participate in late-night “bull sessions” with other students. Black students who participated in these sessions were found to achieve higher grades than those who didn’t. He hypothesizes that the black students who participated in the sessions did better because they came to realize that their problems weren’t unique—all freshmen felt anxious and out-of-place—and therefore that they weren’t inferior to their peers.
Simple, brief affirmation sessions have a huge impact on students’ confidence and, it would appear, their academic success. But again, Steele doesn’t discuss—yet—how one would implement these strategies in real life; it’s not clear how one would encourage the whole student body to engage in effective “bull sessions.”
Recently, Joshua Aronson, Carrie Fried, and Catherine Good conducted a study in which black and white Stanford students were asked to write letters to minority elementary school students in nearby schools. The students were instructed to cite a “narrative” about intelligence, and argue that people could expand their intelligence with hard work and perseverance. On average, white students who wrote these letters experienced no change in their GPAs in the following semester, but black students on average improved their grades by a third of a letter.
The study suggests that affirmation can exert a measurable, positive influence on students’ grades—but once again, Steele doesn’t describe how these measures could exist outside the confines of an experimental setting. The experiment is blind—i.e., the students don’t realize why they’re being asked to write a letter—and so it’s not clear if the students would experience the same results if they knew that they were being trained in self-affirmation.
Aronson, Fried, and Good’s experiment had been conducted on excellent students, studying at one of the country’s elite universities. Steele wanted to study the impact of education narratives on less intellectually gifted people. He studied psychology experiments suggesting that environmental cues could impair the abilities of children as young as five years old. This would suggest that stereotyping could have a cumulative impact: in other words, if children grow up surrounded by stereotypes about their own identities, then they may alter their behavior in increasingly large ways.
The experiences a young child has in a classroom can lead to major effects later on in life. For example, a child who suffers from stereotype anxiety might train themselves to ignore certain opportunities for success, meaning that the child becomes less successful later in life.
Geoffrey Cohen, Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and a professor named Julio Garcia worked together to design a new experiment. Garcia had studied self-affirmation theory—the theory that people want to perceive themselves as being good and competent, and that when anything happens to interfere with their self-image, they struggle to repair it. Garcia hypothesized that giving ability-stereotyped students “a chance to develop a self-affirming narrative” would reduce the threat they felt in school.
Garcia’s hypothesis reflects the results of the last two or three experiments that Steele has described in the chapter: there appears to be a strong correlation between the use of affirmative techniques and academic performance.
In Hartford, Connecticut, the psychologists introduced an experiment in seventh-grade classes. They asked teachers to give half of their students envelopes with their names written on them, and to ask the students to write down important values in their lives (for example, religion or family), along with an explanation of why these values were important. The other students in the class were asked to write down their least important values, and why other people might find them important. This second group of students never got the chance to develop a self-affirming narrative. The exercise—which only happened once at the beginning of the year—seems to have caused a noticeable improvement in the grades of black students who wrote about their values, with the exception of black students who were already academically successful.
The findings of the experiment confirm Garcia’s initial hypothesis. Students who celebrate their values—and, by the same token, construct a self-affirming narrative—tend to go on to do better in school than students who don’t. It might seem unbelievable that something as simple as writing down one’s values once at the beginning of the year can have such a large impact on academic success. But perhaps this is because human beings tend to overestimate the importance of their own individual autonomy and freedom.
Many other psychologists were skeptical of the results of the experiment—it seemed almost impossible that one fifteen-minute exercise could so greatly improve academic success. But Garcia, Aronson, Good, and Cohen argued that this was exactly what had happened. They argued that 1) self-affirmation (in this case, writing a letter about one’s values) is a powerful way to reduce the impact of identity cues, and 2) a simple fifteen-minute exercise causes a chain reaction: self-affirmation causes more success early on, which in turn inspires the students to continue ignoring negative identity cues and succeeding in class throughout the year.
The psychologists’ analysis further explains why a seemingly trivial exercise can have a large impact on academic performance for the entire year: the trivial exercise causes short-term improvement, which in turn causes further improvement for the rest of the year.
Shortly afterwards, Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson tested whether certain forms of coaching could improve ability-stereotyped students’ performances. They took a group of minority junior high school students living in Texas and assigned them mentors, some of whom stressed that intelligence could be expanded with hard work, and the rest of whom stressed the importance of avoiding drug use. The study found that students who’d received the former kind of mentoring performed noticeably better on their statewide tests for the year.
The experiment upholds the other results discussed in the chapter: self-affirmation and an emphasis on values and goals leads to a noticeable improvement on tests.
There are various techniques that reduce the influence of stereotyping cues: these techniques include affirmation narratives and incremental mindsets. Steele now wanted to study the techniques used by teachers who were said to be particularly good with minority students. Steele organized an ambitious, open-ended study: researchers would observe teachers in their classrooms and try to learn as much as possible about their “classroom culture.” Observers sat in on classrooms in almost a hundred different elementary schools in Virginia. The observers noted that often, the most successful teachers used “skill, warmth, and availability,” and made a point of acknowledging the students’ diversity and constructing lessons around that diversity, instead of using a “color-blind” approach.
While Steele is very thorough in studying the positive impact of self-affirmation on academic performance, he also suggests that much more research is needed. It’s unclear from the Virginia observers’ notes whether there are teaching techniques that anyone can use to help minority students, or whether different teachers have different, unique styles that can’t be replicated easily. And again, it’s not clear if self-affirmation exercises need to be “blind,” as they are in most of the experiments discussed in the chapter, or if the students involved will get the same results if they’re aware of why they’re being asked to affirm their values and goals.
The research that Steele has talked about in this chapter points to optimistic conclusions. It suggests that simple measures can help students overcome identity cues in the classroom. It’s important to understand that not all of minority students’ learning deficits can be solved with affirmation exercises. Students without the educational background of their peers need extra education—not just affirmation. Nevertheless, Steele and his colleagues’ research suggests that, even if concrete socioeconomic differences can’t be corrected in the classroom, they can be minimized in practice. Steele makes an analogy: even if long-term causes of heart disease, such as overeating, can’t be averted overnight, doctors can help patients by treating the immediate symptoms of heart disease, such as blocked arteries. The same is true of racial and socioeconomic prejudices: teachers can’t remove these differences, but they can neutralize the most immediate symptoms of these differences.
Steele brings the chapter to an optimistic conclusion. Even if additional research is needed, it would seem that educators can solve some underachievement problems by encouraging students—particularly minority students, who might be dealing with stereotype anxiety—to focus on self-improvement and positive values. Steele is careful to note that he’s not suggesting that policymakers shouldn’t focus on combating the fundamental causes of societal inequalities. Rather, Steele believes that educators and policymakers should try to treat both the immediate and the fundamental symptoms of the problem.
Greg Walton and Steve Spencer used their findings to explore a related question: why minorities often underperformed on tests. They hypothesized that identity threats and stereotype cues, rather than genetics, caused underperformance. Walton and Spencer measured minority students’ SAT scores, put some of these students through an intervention program designed to reduce the influence of stereotypes, and then measured the students’ college grades. They found that stereotyped students who went through the program went on to get better grades than non-stereotyped students with equal test scores.
Walton and Spencer’s research further confirms the hypothesis that Steele developed in the late 1980s—namely, that minority students get lower test scores not because they’re genetically inferior to white students, but because they have to deal with the “weight” of stereotype threats and other negative influences. But these influences can be mitigated—if not eliminated altogether—with the help of special intervention programs that emphasize positive values and self-affirmation. (However, Steele doesn’t go into great detail about this program.)
Walton and Spencer’s findings suggested that even a modest stereotype intervention could exert a major impact on a students’ grades—further suggesting that stereotyping exerts an equally major negative influence. While it was too soon to conclude that stereotyping was responsible for all, or even most, of minorities’ underperformance on standardized tests, the two psychologists had found evidence suggesting that the influence of stereotyping on test performance was greater than almost anyone had supposed.
Notice that, throughout this a chapter (and, really, the whole book), Steele has been focusing on underperformance in an academic setting. Steele doesn’t discuss whether it’s possible to eliminate stereotype threats in society more generally—if so, it would be much more difficult, since it’s harder to control people’s environment and neutralize the influence of stereotype cues.
There’s still a lot of stereotyping research left to be done, Steele concludes, but what research has been done suggests that people can reduce the effects of stereotyping—not just by improving education for everyone, but by reducing identity cues for minorities.
Steele concludes by reiterating his conclusions about the importance of reducing identity cues. More research is needed, but Steele’s work so far has gone a long way toward offering some potential solutions and, perhaps more importantly, burying the bigoted hypothesis that minorities underperform because of genetic factors.