For more than three decades, Claude Steele has been studying the psychology of stereotyping. In Whistling Vivaldi, he revisits his long, successful career, showing how his thinking on the subject of stereotyping has evolved. At the same time, Steele shows readers how a good social psychologist uses research and experimentation to learn about the world, and walks readers through every step in the scientific method.
Like any successful scientific investigation, Steele’s research into stereotyping begins with a question in need of an answer. In the late 1980s, Steele is just beginning his career as a professor. He’s interested in the state of affairs on college campuses—specifically, the way that black students interact with their environments. More generally, Steele wants to understand why black students—and other marginalized groups—often underperform in college, even if they have excellent SAT scores and promising futures. As he proceeds with his research, Steele and his colleagues form their own hypotheses about why an achievement gap between black students and white students exists. Steele considers some of the other explanations for the achievement gap that scientists have devised, such as the structural inequality explanation, or even the genetic explanation (see Achievement Gap theme). It’s important to recognize that, while Steele despises the genetic explanation—i.e., that blacks are cognitively inferior to whites—he’s at least willing to entertain it. Steele then hypothesizes that the achievement gap is the product of stereotype threats, and tries to devise an experiment that will pit his hypothesis against the genetic hypothesis. In this way, he builds a compelling, scientific case refuting the genetic hypothesis.
By carefully designing experiments, Steele gathers more and more information about stereotype threats, while also pointing the way toward further research. In his earliest experiments, Steele studies the relationship between stereotype threats and academic performance in one particular group of people—first women, and then black students. Steele’s findings—that stereotype threats impede the cognitive abilities of both of these groups—answer his initial question about black students’ achievement gap. His findings also pose new, more ambitious questions for him (and his colleagues) to solve. Having shown that there’s a strong link between stereotyping and cognitive performance in at least two marginalized groups, Steele challenges his fellow social psychologists to replicate his findings with other groups of people. Furthermore, Steele’s findings inspire other psychologists to measure the experience of stereotyping in various ingenious ways—for example, one study measures the heart rate and blood pressure of stereotyped test-takers, providing a physiological basis for the experience of stereotyping.
Ultimately, Steele’s career paints an impressive portrait of the scientific method. By entertaining many different explanations for a phenomenon, scientists like Steele gradually build a compelling case for one particular hypothesis. Furthermore, scientists’ studies and experiments advance the entire scientific community’s understanding of an issue. Steele’s characterization of the scientific community is almost utopian: scientists share their findings with one another, so that the scientific community, and the entire world, can benefit from an ever-growing body of knowledge.
Experimentation and the Scientific Method ThemeTracker
Experimentation and the Scientific Method Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.