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The High Cost of Stereotypes

"Whistling Vivaldi" author, IPR scholars define effects, interventions


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Social psychologist Claude Steele gives a lecture on his book, Whistling Vivaldi, at Northwestern University, Feb. 4.

In looking at graphs of University of Michigan undergraduate grades broken down by race in the 1980s, social psychologist Claude Steele noticed that African Americans had lower cumulative grades than their white peers, who scored in the same range on the SAT.

It is not that these students are less intelligent or less motivated than their peers, Steele recounted in a February 4 lecture at Northwestern University. Rather, they suffer from a societal stereotype cast over their particular group’s abilities, leading to their “underperformance” relative to their peers.

This “stereotype threat” “happens everywhere, from sixth grade classrooms to Stanford Medical School,” recalled Steele, now a provost at the University of California, Berkeley. He was speaking about his latest book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, which was selected for the 2014–15 One Book, One Northwestern program.

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Jennifer Richeson

Steele has spent the better part of his illustrious career identifying and examining threats to our sense of self, including stereotypes, summing up his research and offering ideas for how to counteract them in Whistling Vivaldi. He has also served as inspiration for a new generation of scholars, including some of IPR’s own like social psychologist Jennifer Richeson, in their work on the topic.

“Stereotype threat offered a way for me to understand, and then overcome, my own feelings of anxiety as the only Black student in my PhD program,” said Richeson, whose work makes a brief appearance in Steele’s book.

At IPR, an interdisciplinary cadre of researchers continue to push the field into new territory, detailing the effects of stereotypes, as well as pointing to potential interventions for addressing it.

Stereotype Threat in Schools

Like Steele, several IPR researchers are documenting how stereotype threat continues to play out in schools and universities and possible ways to counteract it.   

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Simone Ispa-Landa

In several articles, social policy professor and IPR associate Simone Ispa-Landa observed how white-dominated achievement hierarchies, on the one hand, and prevailing cultural beliefs about femininity and masculinity, on the other, threatened the emotional security and social belonging of urban black students bussed to affluent, majority-white suburban schools. She reveals that bussed black students were under constant stereotype threat through a combination of well-meaning interventions designed to improve their academic performance, "tracking" practices, and white students' classification of them as "underachievers." "Educators and the public, through the school policies and programs they promote, can powerfully influence how students understand race, achievement, and school quality," she wrote.

IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin evaluated a potential solution for stereotype threat based on socioeconomic status in elite, private universities, in the form of a one hour-long “difference-education” intervention. At the beginning of an academic year, first-generation, first-year college students witnessed a panel discussion of seniors from a range of different backgrounds. The seniors talked about the obstacles they had faced in the university environment and how they took their different backgrounds into account when overcoming them. At the end of their first year of college, the students who took part in the intervention had better grades, were better adjusted emotionally, and were more academically and socially engaged than those in a control group.

Such “narrative interventions” represent a “cultural revolution” in combatting stereotype threat, Steele said during his lecture. “This kind of language, this kind of approach, needs to be more foundational in the way we socialize our students.”

Stereotype Threat and Physiology

In the book, Steele posits that “acute reactions” to long-term exposure to negative group stereotypes could engender chronic health problems.

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Christopher Kuzawa

In recent work, IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam and her colleagues assess the relationship between discrimination and cortisol levels in young adults. Normal cortisol levels start off high upon waking, increase in the half hour after waking, and decline over the rest of the day—with the lowest point around midnight.  Under stress, cortisol levels tend to be lower on waking and slightly higher in the evening, resulting in a flatter diurnal cortisol profile, and in some cases, lower average cortisol across the day. The researchers find that while perceived racial discrimination appears to result in flatter diurnal cortisol profiles for both blacks and whites, effects on overall cortisol levels were stronger for black participants, an indicator of chronic stress.

Former IPR graduate research assistant Zaneta Thayer, now on the faculty of the University of Colorado–Denver, with her advisor, IPR anthropologist Christopher Kuzawashow that exposure to stereotypes has “biological effects that can transcend the current generation.” In a new study published in Social Science & Medicine, Thayer and Kuzawa measured cortisol levels for 64 pregnant women living in Auckland, New Zealand—many of whom had been harassed or called insulting names because of their ethnicity. The infants of women who had experienced ethnic discrimination reacted more to stress in the weeks after birth.

Stereotype Threat in the Workplace

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Alice Eagly

Women trying to break into a male-dominated field also often experience stereotype threat on a daily basis. In Whistling Vivaldi, Steele describes a promotional video experiment, conducted by former IPR postdoctoral fellow Mary Murphy, in which students were shown videos with a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of men to women. The most dramatic effect was for the women who only watched the 3:1 video; they had “dramatically elevated heart rates, blood pressure, and sweating” over the other male and female participants.

An important research stream in IPR psychologist Alice Eagly’s career has dealt with the sources of stereotypes of social groups. A recent project with the University of San Diego’s Anne Koenig surveyed people on their stereotypes of a wide range of social groups as well as their beliefs about the occupations in which group members are overrepresented. These beliefs—for example, that high school dropouts are overrepresented as fast food workers—proved to be relatively accurate. The characteristics ascribed to the occupations in which group members are overrepresented tended to match their group stereotypes. When the researchers characterized groups’ occupational roles as likely to change to new roles in the future, the study participants’ stereotypes of the groups changed to match these new roles. The researchers argue that people would move away from their current stereotypes if they viewed stereotyped groups as acting in new roles that demand different attributes. For example, watching women succeed as scientists and tech workers would reduce stereotypes about women being less quantitatively competent than men, ultimately reducing stereotype threat in this domain.

Stereotype Threat and Interracial Interactions

“The stereotype threat whites can feel in interracial, intergroup interactions—I think that’s one of the most powerful forms of stereotype threat I’ve ever seen,” Steele noted.

The emergence of stereotype threat for whites during interracial interactions has been one of the primary components of Richeson’s research agenda.  A study by Adam, Richeson, former IPR postdoctoral fellow Sophie Trawalter, and IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, for instance, highlights the stress that white individuals who are concerned about appearing prejudiced can experience during interracial interaction.  The threat associated with confirming the stereotype that whites are prejudiced can also make these interactions extremely taxing and generally uncomfortable.

However, both Steele and Richeson have discovered ways to make interracial interactions more productive. Richeson has found it effective to encourage majority members to visualize what their conversation partner might be experiencing. Steele and Richeson have also seen results after advising majority members to think of the interaction in a different way:

“These are charged conversations, so here’s a strategy for what you should do,” he said he tells participants in interracial interactions. “Think of it as a learning opportunity. And ask questions. Just ask questions.”

Photo credit: Jonathan Atler