Whistling Vivaldi

Claude Steele Character Analysis

Claude Steele is the author and narrator of Whistling Vivaldi. Throughout the book, he describes the research he’s done on stereotyping, and the surprising, sometime counterintuitive conclusions he’s drawn about human nature and human behavior. Steele includes many details about his life experiences, beginning with the true realization of his own blackness, as a young child in the 1950s, when he was banned from a swimming pool in Chicago. Steele later teaches at the University of Michigan and Stanford University, the latter of which provides him with subjects for many of his most groundbreaking experiments. Because Whistling Vivaldi is a nonfiction work of social psychology, Steele’s first priority is explaining that social psychology to the reader. Even so, readers also learn a lot about his life and his personality: he’s clearly a confident, driven person, who finds the psychology of stereotyping fascinating, in no small part because it’s played such a pivotal role in his own life.

Claude Steele Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi

The Whistling Vivaldi quotes below are all either spoken by Claude Steele or refer to Claude Steele. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity, Stereotyping, and Identity Threats Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the W. W. Norton & Company edition of Whistling Vivaldi published in 2011.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I have a memory of the first time I realized I was black. It was when, at seven or eight, I was walking home from school with neighborhood kids on the last day of the school year—the whole summer in front of us—and I learned that we "black" kids couldn't swim at the pool in our area park, except on Wednesday afternoons.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Swimming Pool
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

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Whistling Vivaldi is about the experience of living under such a cloud—an experience we all have—and the role such clouds play in shaping our lives and society.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Among students with comparable academic skills, as measured by the SAT, black students got less of a return on those skills in college than other students. Something was suppressing the yield they got from their skills.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

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On the second day Ms. Elliott turned the tables. She put the felt collars around the necks of the blue-eyed students and treated them the same way she'd treated the brown-eyed students the day before. The blue-eyed students now lost the energy they'd had the day before and behaved the way the brown-eyed students had on that day, huddled and downcast. The brown-eyed students, for their part, were once again eager learners.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Jane Elliott
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

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Steve Spencer and I weren't especially interested in the genetic explanation of sex differences in math. Our idea was that stigma had more to do with these differences than people commonly thought. But we knew, long before the Summers episode, that the genetic question carried huge cultural weight.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Steven Spencer, Larry Summers
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 3 Quotes

It's conventional wisdom, a virtual stereotype of what causes members of negatively regarded groups to fail. So if something causes black and women college students to perform less well than you'd expect from their skills, it must be—the idea goes—these psychic deficiencies, deficiencies of confidence and expectation, self-sabotaging deficiencies.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

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And third, in finding a reliable means of reproducing in the laboratory the black student underperformance we'd seen in real life, we knew we could examine it up close—tear it apart and see how it worked.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Joshua Aronson
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

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Here was the irony we had suspected. What made Mikel's vanguard black students susceptible to stereotype pressure was not weaker academic confidence and skills but stronger academic confidence and skills.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Mikel Jollet
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Maalouf's emphasis is similar to mine: of all the things that make an identity prominent in one's feeling and thinking, being threatened on the basis of it is perhaps the most important.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Amin Maalouf
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

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If you want to change the behaviors and outcomes associated with social identity—say, too few women in computer science—don't focus on changing the internal manifestations of the identity, such as values, and attitudes. Focus instead on changing the contingencies to which all of that internal stuff is an adaptation.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 5 Quotes

The stereotype threat created by this comment impaired the math performance of exceptionally strong white male math students. No special self-doubting susceptibility seemed necessary.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 6 Quotes

[Treisman] saw black students—in an effort to succeed where their abilities are negatively stereotyped—following a strategy of intense, isolated effort, a strategy that often set them up for defeats and discouragements.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Philip Uri Treisman
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 7 Quotes

Our ability to grasp our emotions, then, is not perfect. When they are very strong, it is easier to know them directly. But when they are moderate, like the lingering anxiety one would feel after crossing the Capilano Bridge, we have less direct access to them. To know and interpret our more moderate emotions, we rely more on what's going on in the immediate situation.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

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The harder the psychology majors (at risk of confirming the stereotype) thought, the more stable their heartbeat interval, the worse they did. Hard thinking for the science majors, under little stereotype pressure, reflected constructive engagement with the test. Hard thinking for the psychology majors, at risk of confirming the stereotype, reflected performance-worsening rumination.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

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John Henryism sounds like the attitude of people who show stereotype threat effects—people who are identified with, and care a lot about succeeding in, an area where their group is negatively stereotyped.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Related Symbols: John Henry
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 8 Quotes

The term "critical mass" refers to the point at which there are enough minorities in a setting, like a school or a workplace, that individual minorities no longer feel uncomfortable there because they are minorities—in our terms, they no longer feel an interfering level of identity threat. When Justice O'Connor was alone on the Court, she lacked critical mass.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

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Herein may lie a principle of remedy: if enough cues in a setting can lead members of a group to feel "identity safe," it might neutralize the impact of other cues in the setting that could otherwise threaten them.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 9 Quotes

Why was it so effective? It resolved their interpretative quandary. It told them they weren't being seen in terms of the bad stereotype about their group's intellectual abilities, since the feedback giver used high intellectual standards and believed they could meet them. They could feel less jeopardy. The motivation they had always had was released.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

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Black students who got a brief narrative intervention of the sort I just described averaged one-third of a letter grade higher in the next semester than black students in a control group who got the results of a survey about political attitudes rather than about college life.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

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Heart attacks also have background causes that are difficult to change—genetic history, long-term habits of diet and exercise, smoking, life stress, etc. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a heart attack can be greatly reduced by drugs and surgery. They do nothing to counter the background causes of heart disease; they treat the most immediate cause of a heart attack, blocked coronary arties.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

The identity threat explanation doesn't require attributing prejudice to the white passengers. All one need assume, it says, is that they have a worry like Ted's: the risk of saying, doing, or even thinking something that would make them feel racist or like they could be seen as racist in interacting with the black passenger. It takes the perspective of the person whose actions one is trying to explain—the woman or minority taking the math test, for example, or in this case the perspective of the white passengers passing up the seat next to a black passenger. It assumes, in light of present-day norms of civility, that most of these passengers are invested in not appearing as racist. It further assumes that this investment, ironically, may lead them to avoid situations like the seat next to the black passenger.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Ted McDougal
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

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This was Glenn Loury’s reasoning. It led him to a surprising claim: the everyday associational preferences that contribute to racially organized networks and locations in American life—that is, racially organized residential patterns, schooling, friendship networks, and so on—may now be more important causes of racial inequality than direct discrimination against blacks. He's not announcing the end of racial discrimination. He's simply underlining the importance of preferences that organize blacks out of networks and locations that could better their outcomes.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Glenn Loury
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

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The prospect of an interracial conversation on a racially sensitive topic made white participants mindful of the whites-as-racist stereotype. And the more mindful they were of this stereotype, the more they distanced themselves from black conversation partners. Worry about being stereotyped was driving them away.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

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It wasn't prejudice that caused them to sit farther from their black partners conversation. It was fear of being seen as racist—pure and simple. It was stereotype threat, a contingency of their white identities in that situation. It was probably this threat, too, rather than racial prejudice, that caused Ted's intense discomfort in his African American political science class, and that caused at least some of the white passengers to give Sheryll Cashin her Southwest Airlines First Class seat and that might make it difficult for white teachers to engage poor-performing minority students. Who needs the hassle?

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Sheryll Cashin, Ted McDougal
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 11 Quotes

When I look over my life as an African American, I see improvements in the contingencies attached to that identity. The swimming pool restrictions of my youth are gone. So are the suffocating limitations Anatole Broyard would have faced as a black man in New York City in the late 1940s. Things have gotten better. But remember, contingencies grow out of an identity's role in the history and organization of a society—its role in the DNA of a society—and how society has stereotyped that identity.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker), Anatole Broyard
Related Symbols: The Swimming Pool
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut laLorem ipsum dolorLorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Claude Steele Character Timeline in Whistling Vivaldi

The timeline below shows where the character Claude Steele appears in Whistling Vivaldi. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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When Claude Steele was seven or eight years old, he says, he realized for the first time that... (full context)
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Years later, Steele spoke to one of his students (who he’ll discuss later in the book in more... (full context)
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In this book, Steele says, he will discuss identity contingencies, a concept which describes the aspects of identity (such... (full context)
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...many people don’t want to believe that their behavior is influenced by their identity. But Steele will show that, in reality, social identity exerts a huge influence on people’s performance in... (full context)
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Steele will focus on one particular kind of identity contingency: the stereotype threat. Stereotyping is “a... (full context)
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...exert a measure of influence on people’s behavior. Even if stereotypes can’t be overturned entirely, Steele argues, they can be reduced and improved. (full context)
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Imagine an experiment, Steele says, in which a woman is asked to solve math problems. Would the woman be... (full context)
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One of the most basic assumptions that Steele uses when studying stereotyping is that “everyone is capable of bias.” Working from such an... (full context)
Chapter 2
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In 1986, Claude Steele was a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. That spring, the University of... (full context)
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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.... (full context)
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During his visit to Ann Arbor, Steele talked to several minority students about their experiences. These students were bright and had been... (full context)
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In 1987, Steele accepted an offer from the University of Michigan, and moved to Ann Arbor with his... (full context)
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A few years later, Steele delivered a talk on his research at another institution of higher learning. During his time... (full context)
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Steele also met with black students at the college. They told him about incidents in which... (full context)
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Steele describes the experiences of a schoolteacher named Jane Elliott in the late 1960s. Elliot tried... (full context)
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Steele came to realize that college students were stigmatized in much the same way as the... (full context)
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Steele collaborated with a University of Michigan researcher named Steven Spencer to understand group underperformance in... (full context)
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Steele and Spencer prepared a study recruiting men and women who’d done well on the math... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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Spencer and Steele had two hypotheses: 1) women underperformed because of stigmatization, or 2) women underperformed because of... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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In the 1980s and early 1990s, when Steele and Spencer presented their findings, other academics misinterpreted them very slightly: they argued that Steele... (full context)
Chapter 3
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In many ways, Steele says, social science is like sports writing: researchers start with a conclusion and then work... (full context)
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...couldn’t be the reason for their failures in the past. Like sports journalists in 1978, Steele had found evidence that women performed as well as men on difficult math tests, provided... (full context)
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In 1991, just as he was beginning to study stigmatization, Steele moved from Michigan to Stanford. His new research partner was a Princeton Ph.D. named Joshua... (full context)
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Aronson and Steele’s findings posed new questions about why black students often underperformed. Steele proposed a novel way... (full context)
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Steele and Aronson could now conclude three things: 1) stigma pressure was general, in the sense... (full context)
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...enjoyed, ranking their favorite and least favorite genres, immediately before taking a test. Aronson and Steele found that, when the test was presented to the subjects as measuring intellectual ability, black... (full context)
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Steele and Aronson’s research suggested that black students of all kinds—not just poor students—were influenced by... (full context)
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Steele, Mikel, and Joseph proceeded to study stigmatization in the Los Angeles high school Mikel had... (full context)
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...like the Sonics in 1977—they had talent, but suffered from stereotype pressure. After Mikel’s experiment, Steele began using the word “stereotype threat” to describe the impact of stigmatization on students. (full context)
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Steele had used social psychology to reach the conclusion that, contrary to what many people claim,... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Several years ago, Steele read an article by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, about a man named Anatole... (full context)
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As Steele proceeded with his research in the nineties, it occurred to him that all the contingencies... (full context)
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During a visit to Radcliffe College, Steele met a graduate student who argued that mental health should be included in Steele’s list... (full context)
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...Need to Belong, about the crimes committed in the name of identity. Maalouf’s book prefigured Steele’s own research: like Steele, Maalouf argued that threats tend to make identity “prominent in one’s... (full context)
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...contingencies also reinforce identity, but they’re often less memorable than negative contingencies. For example, if Steele were chosen first on a basketball team (reinforcing the positive stereotype that black people are... (full context)
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In 1969, Steele taught at the University of Bristol. During this period, the social psychologist Henri Tajifel conducted... (full context)
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Steele recently listened to an NPR interview on the subject of why so many notable African... (full context)
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Social identities, Steele has come to believe, are “adaptations to the particular circumstances of our lives.” Social identity... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Steele later spoke with McDougal. McDougal said that the class had taught him an important lesson:... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Steele collaborated with his colleagues and developed a measure for identity threats. High-performing, confident white math... (full context)
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Steele’s next step was to gather further evidence of “the breadth of stereotype threat effects.” By... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Steele’s close friend Carol Porter is a social psychologist at Princeton, and she’s studied the ways... (full context)
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Steele collaborated with David Nussbaum, a graduate student, to study “over-effort” in a laboratory setting. Nussbaum... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Steele and his colleagues ran into a similar problem when measuring identity threats—people can’t always understand... (full context)
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Steele collaborated with a team of researchers from Santa Barbara to measure the physiological components of... (full context)
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Steele’s next step was to study the impact that stereotype threats had on mental faculties. Already,... (full context)
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Steele interprets Croizet’s findings to suggest that stereotyping can impede mental faculties. When people face stereotyping,... (full context)
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...stereotype, their minds race, their blood pressure rises, and they perspire. But in the mid-1990s, Steele still had another question: “Is there any evidence of what long-term exposure to identity threats... (full context)
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The implication of the research Steele has discussed in this chapter is disturbing: wanting to succeed has a heavy price. The... (full context)
Chapter 8
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In the 1990s, Steele researched the factors that lead to a person being affected by identity threats. Initially, he... (full context)
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Steele and his research partners began to develop a theory of how environmental cues contribute to... (full context)
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At this point in his research, Steele had many new questions about identity contingencies, above all, “Can a few cues in a... (full context)
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Steele and Purdie-Vaughns developed their own experiment, in which black and white participants were given a... (full context)
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...situations (rather than during a test). With the help of James Gross, an emotional psychologist, Steele and Murphy developed experiments to measure the physiological impact of situational cues. Student participants watched... (full context)
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Murphy, Steele, and Gross had shown that, under ordinary circumstances—something as banal as watching a commercial—women experienced... (full context)
Chapter 9
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In 1967, Steele began graduate school in social psychology at Ohio State University. Like every other graduate student,... (full context)
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Before Steele talks about what can be done to fix the problem of stigmatization at schools, he... (full context)
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While Steele was in graduate school, his adviser was a man named Thomas Ostrom. While Steele faced... (full context)
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...most receptive to the third style. This was the kind of feedback that Ostrom gave Steele years ago. (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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Steele began to study the experiments of a young professor named Greg Walton, who studied under... (full context)
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Steele later ran a similar experiment in which freshmen were asked to participate in late-night “bull... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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The research that Steele has talked about in this chapter points to optimistic conclusions. It suggests that simple measures... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 10
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With his graduate student Philip Goff, Steele conducted research into the structure of contemporary American society. Goff and Steele wanted to study... (full context)
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As Goff and Steele researched group segregation, they developed an experiment that could measure the impact of “identity threats... (full context)
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To get a better sense for the dynamics of racial discrimination, Steele and Goff included two other groups of white Stanford students in the study. Half of... (full context)
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Goff and Steele conducted a similar experiment. The only difference between this experiment and its predecessor was that... (full context)
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Goff and Steele collaborated with Paul Davies (whom Steele introduced earlier in the book) to develop another experiment.... (full context)
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Steele’s findings are encouraging. Identity threats may keep people apart, but there are simple ways to... (full context)
Chapter 11
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...there’s been a lot of talk about America becoming a “post-racial” society. In Whistling Vivaldi, Steele has tried to advance a more nuanced argument. Even if Americans abandon all racial prejudices... (full context)
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Perhaps the most important thing Steele has discovered during the course of his career is that even the threat of being... (full context)
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In all, Steele hopes that Whistling Vivaldi can be an optimistic book. He’s detailed a variety of techniques,... (full context)
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...as a sign of the advent of post-racial America, Obama spoke about his race often (Steele says), and celebrated his heritage. Obama talked about his white mother and his black father,... (full context)