Social psychologist Steele examines stereotype threat in higher education
Internationally renowned social psychologist and Dean for the School of Education at Stanford Claude Steele discussed his research on stereotype threat and the challenges faced by underrepresented minorities in higher education on Tuesday evening.
Steele explained how stereotype threat, the experience of anxiety that a person feels when he or she is in a position to potentially confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group, can cause people exposed to the same situation to have divergent experiences. He also discussed ways to combat the threat of stereotyping.
Steele’s academic research has focused on psychological threats to individuals, including considerations of self-image, self-regulation and social behavior, according to his faculty web page. He is the author of “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.”
Throughout the lecture Steele emphasized that stereotyping influences everyone on a daily basis, whether or not an individual is a member of a minority group. He provided multiple anecdotal illustrations of his personal experience, including his experience with segregation as an African-American.
Steele began to notice an inconsistency when he began teaching at the University of Michigan in 1987. While he found that SAT scores were generally associated with a higher university GPA, African-American students tended to have lower GPAs than other students regardless of their SAT scores, which Steele said was very puzzling.
“What surprised me the most was that it went against my preconceptions,” Steele said.
However, Steele found that his stereotype threat theory provided an answer to this puzzle. According to his theory, “the oppression of being a member of a group whose abilities are negatively stereotyped itself can be frustrating enough … to cause systematic underperformance in a group,” Steele said.
When an individual is faced with a situation in which a stereotype is understood to define that person’s demographic group, the prospect of being reduced to that stereotype is upsetting enough to interfere with the individual’s performance. This pressure to perform is increased by circumstantial clues that make an individual believe he or she does not belong.
To provide evidence for this theory, Steele explained that he gave undergraduate male and female advanced math students a standardized graduate entrance exam. In his first trial, women performed a full standard deviation below men with the same academic preparation. Steele attempted to remove the stereotype threat by stating that the exam would be unable to pick up on any differences in gender, and consequently, the women’s scores rose to match the men’s.
While stereotype threat occurs on an individual level, Steele emphasized the importance of the much larger socio-cultural context. “Stereotypes are a cultural mechanism that brings history forward to present-day life,” Steele said.
With this consideration, individuals and organizations can attempt to mitigate stereotype threat by changing the way that society is organized in relation to minorities, Steele explained. He provided examples of strategies to address this threat, including reevaluating the representation of cultural minorities in history curriculum and affirmative action.
“[Stereotype threat] isn’t tied to something inside a person inside a group,” explained Steele. “It’s tied to the culture. It’s an explanation that a culture presents to a person when they have a certain experience in a domain.”
Steele’s lecture, “Stereotype Threat: How It Affects Us and What We Can Do About It,” was held in McCosh 50 and was sponsored by the Princeton Public Lectures Series.
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