April 11, 2013

Professor Claude Steele Says Stereotypes Can Pose Threats

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Claude Steele, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, spoke to a packed Alice Statler Auditorium Thursday about his theory of “stereotype threat”: a topic in the field of social psychology.

According to Steele, stereotype threat refers to the frustration or anxiety experienced by individuals who feel pressured to overcome a negative stereotype associated with their group in certain situations.

“For groups whose abilities are negatively stereotyped in broader society, individuals seem to underperform in challenging work, even when they are equally prepared or have the same talents,” Steele said.

Steele demonstrated this phenomenon by drawing from his own findings about the GPAs students at the University of Michigan earned and how they compared to their high school SAT scores.

“I noticed this phenomenon many years ago. … Usually, kids come in with high SAT scores and earn even higher grades,” Steele said.  “However, when looking at … African-American students, at every level of entering SAT scores, these students were getting lower grades than students [of other races]. They were equally prepared and equally motivated, so what was causing this difference in performance?”

He said this pattern of underperformance could be seen anywhere in society, from Harvard Medical School to a third-grade classroom down the street.

“There are circumstances where you really wanted to do well in something, but you know that the people who are watching your performance have a sense that ‘you can’t do it’ — that’s stereotype threat,” Steele said.

Steele added that stereotype threat can have adverse affects on the cognitive abilities of people who believe their identity is attached to a negative stereotype.

One of his experiments — which studied the disparities between test performances of black and white students on a non-verbal IQ test — supported the notions of stereotype threat, Steele said.

According to Steele, during a non-verbal IQ test comprised of visual puzzles, black students scored a whole standard deviation lower than white students. When the students were encouraged to solve the puzzles, just as a fun activity, black students performed exactly the same as white students on the test.

“If you take away the condition where a stereotype might come into play, the differences are less pronounced,” Steele said.

Steele also said that stereotype threat is hard to escape for those affected by it, and that diversity may help to ameliorate these feelings.

“[Stereotype threat] is a chronic feature of life. It is a contingency of identity and goes along with [one] in certain situations,” Steele said. “To remedy the situation, you cannot have homogeneity; you must have diversity to create excellence and change certain cues so that they won’t send negative messages to people.”

Taylor Brooks ’16, who attended the lecture, said she sees stereotype threat in her daily life.

“Stereotype threat is something that affects everyone. The powerful pressures of both stereotype and social identity threat have been underlying thoughts throughout my life,” Brooks said.

Obi Asiama ’13 echoed Brooks’ sentiments, adding that he found Steele’s lecture “enlightening.”

“As a black male in higher education, the idea of stereotype threat puts a face and a name to [the] many emotions and sentiments I have experienced,” he said. “I wonder how important it is for us as people to not only recognize the way in which stereotype threat touched our own lives, but to be conscious of those who are facing challenges like our own.”

Thursday’s lecture was part of a series, the Robert L. Harris, Jr. ADVANCEments in Science Lectures, that is geared toward educating the campus community on gender and diversity issues. It was sponsored by CU-ADVANCE, a program at Cornell dedicated toward diversifying the campus and improving its climate, especially for women faculty in engineering and the sciences, according to its website.

Original Author: Annie Bui