Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us

“Whistling Vivaldi,” a new study of cultural stereotypes by Claude M. Steele, is a surprising book. Within its pages, the highly thought-of social psychologist shows us how, even in the absence of explicit racism, negative stereotypes can continue to pervade American life, and have far-reaching influences on our behavior. Before writing it, Steele did more than two decades of systematic research of minority student performance, as well as a wide range of experiments on other situations where stereotypes can come into play. He also cites, in the book, many other experiments in social psychology that explored this and related subjects: many of which he apparently inspired.

Within these pages, Steele reveals the powerful, hidden “stereotype threat” that can lie within most competitive situations. He defines it as the great, but invisible pressure created by our fear of confirming negative cultural stereotypes about ourselves. He shows how it can affect white men racing against blacks, or playing basketball against them, when blacks are thought to be fleeter of foot. It can also affect white men competing against Asians in university settings. It can also be shown to affect highly-achieving women studying mathematics or sciences, who have internalized our culture’s belief that women are naturally inferior to men in these areas. He also shows that it affects higher-ranking black students in our nation’s elite colleges, and even its better-ranking high schools. And he proves that, while you might think the poorer performance of black students in these situations is due to racism, or to the `usual suspects’ often cited in discussions of poorly-achieving black and other minority students: broken families, lack of good role models, a background suffused with violence that denigrates education, their poor achievements can be shown to be due, also, to stereotype threat.

Steele was appointed provost of Columbia University in 2009. He had been teaching at Stanford University since 1991; while there he served both as chair of the psychology department and as director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He has also taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, and the University of Utah. He earned his doctorate in social psychology from Ohio State University, and holds honorary doctorates from Princeton, Yale, and the University of Chicago.

“Whistling Vivaldi,” however, goes beyond merely identifying and proving the problem of “stereotype threat.” Yet it is written in easy to follow English, rather than dense academica, and is a fast, and not difficult, read. Its author shows that interventions are possible in this negative process that can show positive results for years, maybe even entire college careers. And these interventions are neither costly, nor difficult, to implement. Let’s hope the book reaches, and influences, the audience it deserves.

Dale’s opinion (Gender Agenda blog)

source: pwc.blogs.com

The vignette that Dr. Steele shared with us was staggering: women and men comprised of top math students in the U.S. were given a math test. In the control group, the women scored lower than the men on the test. In the experimental group, only one thing was changed prior to the students taking the test – the women were told that for this particular math test, women score higher than men (this of course, was not at all true). When the ‘stereotype threat’ was removed by this lie, however, the female scores skyrocketed.

Is it possible that one tiny sentence about a test, while changing nothing material about the test, could have such an impact on the self-belief of the test-takers? In short, yes, according to Dr. Steele. He believes that when a math task is important to women, their performance is affected by the stereotype that all women are poor at math.

Being reduced to a stereotype is disturbing and all human beings can suffer from this on a cognitive level. Dr. Steele told us that when we’re worried about being stereotyped (and this could be about our gender, culture, sexual orientation, race, etc.) it preoccupies us, and therefore both our learning and our performance are impaired. That’s because we ruminate, we worry, we spend precious mental capital fighting it, which takes cognitive abilities away from the task and undermines our performance.

Research shows that micro-inequities and stereotyping could be much more pervasive and harmful than any of the “bigger stuff” such as overt sexual harassment.

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