Discusses “Stereotype Threat”
by: Fred LeBlanc
threat” is a problem that pervades American life, according
to Claude Steele, an internationally recognized social psychologist
and professor at Stanford University who addressed a standing-room-only
crowd in Gamble Auditorium Tuesday evening, September 21. In
an insightful and engaging talk, Steele maintained that overcoming
stereotype threat is key to achieving integration of our society
that goes beyond statistics and “allows people to flourish
in an integrated setting.” Mount Holyoke President Joanne
V. Creighton introduced Steele, claiming that “his work
has great relevance to how we build a diverse community and society
that respect, value, and encourage the development and well being
of all of their members.”
Steele first outlined the theory behind stereotype threat. His basic premise
is that a person’s “social identity”—defined as group
membership in categories such as age, gender, religion, and ethnicity—has
significance when “rooted in concrete situations.” Steele defines
these situations as “identity contingencies”—settings in which
a person is treated according to a specific social identity.
Steele then talked about his findings in many studies that when a person’s
social identity is attached to a negative stereotype, that person will tend to
underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype. He attributes the underperformance
to a person’s anxiety that he or she will conform to the negative stereotype.
The anxiety manifests itself in various ways, including distraction and increased
body temperature, all of which diminish performance level.
Steele made clear that stereotype threat is not limited to historically disadvantaged
groups, and that every person suffers stereotype threat in certain contexts.
For example, he cited a study testing stereotype threat among white engineering
students. When the white students took a test after being told that Asians typically
outperformed whites on that test, the whites performed significantly worse than
they would have otherwise.
Noting that the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling against
school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education had served to highlight the
dismaying lack of progress towards successful integration, Steele credited the
United States for dealing with the difficult challenges of integration. He said
that while racism exists, stereotype threat is a far more pervasive barrier to
a truly integrated society. According to Steele, a person’s fear of being
negatively stereotyped according to race—whites as racist, blacks as intellectually
inferior, for example—creates a general level of discomfort in racially
But Steele’s message was not without hope. He stressed that abilities are
expandable and that there is no truth to allegations that a particular group
lacks a particular capacity. He maintained that stereotype threat would continue
as the “default setting” until steps are taken to counteract it.
Above all, he urged that, at an institutional level, we must promote “identity
safety,” implicit efforts to establish that diverse social identities add
integral value to a setting.