In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele describes the powerful role that stereotypes play in human behavior. He begins by recalling his childhood in 1950s Chicago, and the day when he first truly became aware that he was black. Steele tried to get into a public swimming pool, but was told that the pool was only open to white people that day. It’s significant, Steele argues, that he first became aware of his own race while being treated negatively—being turned away from a swimming pool on a hot day. Human beings judge one another according to their identities—not just their race but their class, their age, their health, etc. For more than twenty years, Steele has conducted psychological research suggesting that the mere threat of a stereotype is so powerful that it can change human behavior.
Steele began researching the impact of stereotypes on behavior in the 1980s, when he was beginning his career as a professor at the University of Michigan. At the time, Steele became aware of a large “achievement gap” between white and black students at the university. Black students generally underperformed on tests, and also associated primarily with other black students. They often felt that their white professors and classmates were treating them condescendingly, or accidentally making offensive remarks.
Working with another University of Michigan researcher, Steele designed a set of experiments to measure the influence of stereotypes on students’ behavior. At the time, there were many academics who were willing to entertain the possibility that certain groups of people were simply mentally inferior to other groups, for genetic reasons. Steele, along with another professor, Steven Spencer, wanted to test this possibility, even though they didn’t take it seriously, and in fact despised it. Spencer and Steele hypothesized that just the threat of conforming to a stereotype could distract minority students, leading to poor performance on an exam. They found that when women were instructed to take a math test that claimed to measure intellectual capability, they performed well below men. However, when they were told that the test hadn’t been shown to reveal any gender differences, women performed at the same level as men. Steele interpreted this finding to mean that the threat of conforming to a stereotype—i.e., being bad at math—was enough to cause the female subjects anxiety and impede their cognitive abilities. However, Steel recognized that more research was needed.
Over the next few years, Steele and his colleagues developed other experiments, suggesting that the threat of a stereotype was an important factor in reducing the performance of many different groups, not just women. Black students underperformed on experimental tests, but only when they were told that they’d be taking a test designed to measure cognitive ability (presumably because this was enough to trigger a fear of conforming to the stereotype that black students are intellectually inferior to white students). Other social psychologists produced similar results for working-class people, Asian-Americans, the elderly, the other heavily stereotyped groups. After Steele moved from Michigan to Stanford, he and some of his students created an experiment measuring the stereotype threat on inner-city high school students. They concluded that stereotype threats were particular impactful for the most motivated, intelligent test-takers subject to that stereotype.
Steele was slowly painting a picture of stereotyping very different from the one found in most psychological literature at the time. Many social psychologists had argued that the constant “weight” of stereotyping made minorities less motivated or self-confident in general. Steele, on the other hand, argued that stereotype threats manifested themselves in highly specific environmental cues, which could be measured and, in theory, canceled out with other environmental cues. Around the same time, other social psychologists were conducting research suggesting that human beings have an innate need to divide one another into groups, and favor members of their own group over others. Steele and his colleagues conducted further experiments suggesting that the threat of a stereotype for a group of test takers—even if the test takers hadn’t previously considered the stereotype at all—could impair the test takers’ performance in measurable ways.
In the second half of the book, Steele details some of the ways that teachers and policymakers might curb the influence of stereotypes. Studies have found that minority students often push themselves too hard, and are less likely to collaborate with their peers. If outreach programs could help minority students work with one another and accept constructive feedback from their professors and mentors, then gifted minority students might not suffer from “over-effort.”
Steele and some of his colleagues also wanted to understand the physiological impact of stereotyping. They ran experiments that suggested that the threat of a stereotype could cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure—even if the victim of stereotyping wasn’t aware of any change. To cancel out some of the physiological effects of stereotyping, Steele researched self-affirmation theory. According to this theory, minorities can partly overcome the influence of many stereotype threats by focusing on their values and hard work, and consciously accepting that stereotypes are a part of their reality. Studies of academic performance in public schools suggest that even a simple, fifteen-minute affirmation exercise has a profound positive impact on minority students’ grades.
Steele isn’t suggesting that policymakers should focus on self-affirmation exercises at the expense of fighting structural inequalities in American society. Rather, he argues that the achievement gap isn’t only the result of these concrete inequalities, but also the result of psychological difficulties that can be controlled and minimized fairly easily. Steele makes an analogy: even if doctors can’t fight all of the genetic and behavioral factors that lead to heart disease, they can still fight the most immediate symptoms of heart disease (clogged arteries). By the same logic, teachers may not be able to correct for centuries of racism or sexism, but they can take simple steps to ensure that their students are partly shielded from the influence of stereotyping.
Steele ends by discussing the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Some suggested that Obama’s election heralded the beginning of a “post-racial America,” but Steele offers a slightly different conclusion. Americans shouldn’t deny their racial heritage, or pretend that identity doesn’t play a major role in their day-to-day lives. But perhaps they should also understand that, just as their own identities have shaped their experiences, other people’s identities also shape their experiences. If Americans learn to understand and accept other people’s differences, and realize that stereotypes affect everyone in some way, then in the long run, they may be able to defeat the achievement gap.