Author: Stereotypes Shape Our Perceptions And Ourselves

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Columbia University Provost and social psychologist Claude Steele says that stereotypes play an important role in defining who we are, and how we are seen by others. Steele discusses his new book, “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.”

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

And coming up, the TELL ME MORE take on Apple and its iPhone4, just out today. That's in a few minutes.

But now, to be human is to love, to think, and to love thinking about where each of us fit in. Once you finally figure out to which group you belong, then you can begin worrying about how others see you and about the stereotypes attached to your group.

Columbia University provost and social psychologist Claude Steele has written a book called "Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us." It turns out the soft bigotry of low expectations has some rather hard and immediate effects. Provost Steele joins us now from the campus studios of Columbia University. Welcome to the program.

Professor CLAUDE STEELE (Columbia University): Thank you for having me.

COX: You know, you talk a lot about stereotypes and the impact that they have, the threat of stereotypes. Maybe a good starting point for us is this: Do we all suffer, if that's the right word, from having stereotypes about and against us?

Prof. STEELE: I think all people do. I think stereotype threat is the term around which the book centers. I think people experience that almost on a daily basis.

COX: So...

Prof. STEELE: We all have identities that are negatively stereotyped.

COX: So you say in the book, and you talk about this quite a bit, and I'd like to get you to expand on it now, that the threat of stereotype is often what immobilizes us and keeps us from performing at our peak. What did you mean?

Prof. STEELE: Well, it's a predicament. And when we're in situations where a negative stereotype about one of our identities - our age, our race, our gender - is applicable, we know that we could be stereotyped and judged negatively and even treated negatively in terms of that stereotype. And if we're doing something that's important to us in that situation, then the prospect of being reduced to a negative stereotype can be upsetting and distracting and interfere with performance and functioning in general.

Positive stereotypes can help. They have almost the opposite effect. That is, if your group is positively stereotyped in an area, then you can endure a lot more frustration and difficultly before you assume or infer that you don't belong in that domain or belong doing that kind of work.

We're here looking at the effects of stereotypes on athletic performance -white and black elite athletes doing a golf task, you know, a 10-hole golf task in a laboratory room. To put white athletes under stereotype (unintelligible) the task was presented as a task measuring natural athletic ability - that's a negative stereotype of whites, that they lack that ability. So in that condition, the whites underperform on that task compared to the blacks.

But you can reverse this pattern of results by changing the stereotype that's relevant to the task. So you simply describe the task as a task that measures sports-strategic intelligence. Well, that makes stereotypes about blacks' intelligence relevant to performance now. Blacks are now under that pressure, and they, experiencing that pressure, underperform in relation to whites.

Their frustration now is a signal that maybe they're confirming the stereotype and that distracts them and they perform worse than their white counterparts in that situation.

COX: Now, you spend a great deal of time in the book talking about the research that you have done, looking into stereotypes, looking into the threat the stereotypes pose and how people can or perhaps may not be able to overcome them. You use the title of the book, actually, in an interesting way I'd like to ask you about, "Whistling Vivaldi," where you talk about a writer, Brent Staples, who used - well, you tell us. How did he use Vivaldi in terms of dealing with the stereotypes?

Prof. STEELE: Yeah. He, like me, is an African-American male. He goes to graduate school at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. He walks down the streets and - dressed informally as a student - and he realizes that whites are avoiding him. They're seeing him through the lens of a stereotype as a possibly menacing African-American male. And this discomforts him, of course.

And as time goes by, he eventually stumbles on a tactic that causes them to not see him that way anymore, which is to whistle Vivaldi. Whistling Vivaldi is something that counters the stereotype of him being a menacing black male and the people on the street relax and he relaxes and he goes on about his way. There's a sadness to that tale, but it illustrates well what an experience I think a lot of us have had, the sense that in certain situations we are being seen stereotypically and without much awareness of it, doing things that deflect that stereotype, to disprove it.

COX: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We are talking with Columbia University provost Claude Steele. He is the author of the book "Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us."

One other point on this idea of the stereotyping and the threat of how it impacts us. You argue that it is easy to, quote, "ignite human bias." And you say "nothing special about either the perpetrator or the victim is required and that ordinary human functioning, maintaining one's own self-esteem, is enough to do that. Can you give us some examples of why it is so easy to be biased?

Prof. STEELE: Well, I think stereotypes are habits of mind, and we use them in interpreting our experience without much thought, just like we use words as we're speaking without much thought about how they come to mind and how they shape a sentence or shape our meaning in a situation. Stereotypes have that same characteristic.

There are things that we have picked up - generalities that we've picked up in our experience. So they can affect our perception of things in our behavior without us having much awareness of it. They're very hard to police in that sense.

COX: You use an example of how people - certain people are able to take advantage of even being the victim of a stereotype, and I'm thinking of the example in your book. Talk about this - what you call the Southwest Airlines first class syndrome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That was pretty funny.

Prof. STEELE: This, yeah, you know, white Americans, too, are under stereotype threat pressure, especially when they are in interracial interactions. If it doesn't go well or they wind up appearing uninformed about African-American experience, they could be thought or they can fear that they could be thought of as racist or racial insensitive or something of that sort, and that prospect of being stereotyped that way can be very upsetting to them.

And the author, I'm forgetting her name right now, she wrote a great book entitled "Integration," that...

COX: Sheryl Cashin. Sheryl Cashin?

Prof. STEELE: Yes, Sheryl Cashin. That's the name.

COX: Yes.

Prof. STEELE: I'm using her story here, of you know - an African-American male gets on - boards the plane, sits in a very prime seat at the front of the plane, and whites will file by him rather than sit next to him. And then she, as an African-American woman, will plop right down beside him and get the benefit of the great seat. That's the story that Sheryl Cashin tells. And the question is, how do you interpret that? Why are they walking by him? And why are the white passengers not taking that good seat?

There are a variety of possibilities. Perhaps there's some racial discomfort, maybe there's some prejudice. The one possibility, though, is that whites may feel a good deal or anticipate feeling what we call stereotype threat in that situation, that an interracial conversation might drift into areas of sensitivity and they could be not so good at that and they might fear that, oh, that's a stressful conversation, I'll just avoid it, because if I make a mistake I might be seen in a way I'd be very upset about being seen as.

COX: Now, on a little bit more of an academic point of view, you do talk about extensive research that you and other colleagues have done with regard to this and the impact that stereotypes have. And you chose to use young people, students in college. You use some from Michigan, I believe, and others, talking about and trying to quantify whether or not these theories are in fact provable. Are they?

Prof. STEELE: Yes. This is one of the most exciting things about this, that the research shows that under stereotype threat, that is where you get a classic, typical minority student or woman in math underperformance - performing at levels lower than their real abilities are. You remove that stereotype threat and their performance goes up.

The way we do it is to just - for example, I'll use the case of women and men. Give them a very difficult math test, for example. This is an area where women's abilities are negatively stereotyped. The test is frustrating, women -given that kind of a test - even though their skills are just as good as the men we're comparing them to, they score on this test lower than men do.

Our interpretation is that, well, they're worrying about confirming that stereotype. They're worried about disproving that stereotype. That's a kind of multitasking that they're doing. And that impairs their performance right there in the situation.

Now, the beauty of these experiments is that you can get rid of that underperformance simply by telling them as they sit down to take the test that you may have heard that women don't do as well as men on difficult math tests. But that's not true for this particular test. On this particular test women do as well as men. As soon as you give them that sentence, their performance goes up to match that of equally skilled men. You relieve that pressure from them in that testing situation. That's what that sentence does. You're relieving that pressure of worrying about confirming the stereotype. Then their performance goes up to match that of men.

COX: The answer, then, to avoid problems - my very last question - is to remove the stereotype threat if you can.

Prof. STEELE: Yes. I think what we have to recognize is - let's talk about this in relation to schooling, especially in integrated school settings - the stereotype threat is a significant component of the achievement gap. And so there I think it's very important to reduce that, and what has to be done to reduce that is that students have to be able to trust that in that situation they're not going to be seen stereotypically. That's a fundamental trust and it's not an easy trust to grant to someone or to enable someone to have. But that's what I think our minority students have to have in order to function to their full level of ability in these situations.

How do you do that? Well, the book goes into a great deal of detail about that.

COX: Yes, it does.

Prof. STEELE: I list a lot of things. You know, demanding work helps. Demanding work that supports a student's ability to do the work. That combination of things tells the student that they're not being seen stereotypically. Students getting a chance to talk to each other informally across racial lines, across identity lines - that gives them information that their group alone is not experiencing negative things in the setting. And that helps them not see everything in terms of race or in terms of racial threat in a situation.

COX: Columbia University provost Claude Steele, author of "Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us," joined us from his campus in New York City. Thank you very much. An interesting conversation.

Prof. STEELE: Thank you for having me.

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