African Americans are better at sports. Asian Americans are better at math. Though we outwardly seek and applaud diversity, stereotypes persist. “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” investigates the research of Dr. Claude Steele, a social psychologist, on stereotypes — and how, even in a society that openly eschews the idea, they still manage to exist.
“When it comes to identity threat, we humans are a sensitive lot,” Steele writes. He introduces the idea of “identity contingencies” — the emblazoned identity stereotypes we are forced to overcome in societal situations — and with it the idea that each of us can be stereotyped by our identity. He focuses on “stereotype threat”: a subtype of identity contingency which is “a real threat of judgment or treatment in the person’s environment that went beyond any limitations within.”
The power of this term is clear as he presents startling findings. For example, when Princeton students were told that a golfing feat tested “natural athletic ability,” European Americans underperformed when compared to the African Americans. Interestingly, the results reversed when students were told it was a measure of “sports strategic intelligence.”
Within academics the story is similar, as Steele notes that a “preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that underperformance, when not caused by discrimination against a group in grades, is likely caused by stereotype and identity threats and the interfering reactions they cause.”
Though focused primarily on academic settings, findings are easily applicable outside the gates. Steele shows how even indirect cues from the environment can suppress performance in areas spanning academics to athletics and in ages spanning kindergarten to college and beyond.
Steele shows how educators might overcome stereotype threat with practically implementable research findings, including self-affirmation within grade school, multiracial group talks on college campuses, reinforcing that challenges are learnable and ability is not “fixed,” and altering methods by which critical feedback is provided.
“Our social identities can strongly affect things as important as our performances in the classroom and on standardized tests, our memory capacity, our athletic performance, the pressure we feel to prove ourselves, even the comfort level we have with people of different groups,” says Steele. “What makes you susceptible is caring about doing well — when you’re in a situation where a bad idea about one of those identities is relevant to what you’re doing.”
“Stereotype threat is a broad fact of life,” Steele writes, and “Whistling Vivaldi” provides insight into the idea that it is a powerful, pervasive issue that must be overcome in order to not only improve performance but society as a whole.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.
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