Claude Steele has written a wonderful book on stereotype threat, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. Stereotype threat is a powerful phenomenon working to suppress the performance of those from stigmatised groups. (Where ‘stigmatised’ must be understood in a highly context-dependent way: women in maths, black people in academia more generally, whites in athletics, and so on.) In particular, it suppresses the performance of those who really care about doing well in the activity their group is stereotypically considered less good at. What seems to happen is that awareness of stereotypes makes the victim of stereotype threat tense up and focus on the negative expectations for their performance (and desire to overcome these expectations) rather than at the task at hand. (This is reflected physiologically, in heart beat and blood pressure.) This makes the victim underperform. But if something is done to relieve the threat the victim performs well. The results of Steele’s (and others’) studies are dramatic, and the book gives incredibly valuable guidance on how to alleviate stereotype threat. Just a few dramatic illustrations:
1. If you have 5-7 year-old girls colour in pictures of a girl holding a doll (which reminds them of gender stereotypes) before they do a maths test, they do much less well than if you have them colour in a landscape (Steele 170).
2. If you tell black students that the difficult test they’re about to take is a test of ability, they do less well than white students. But if you tell them you just want to study problem-solving processes they do just as well as white students (Steele 51).
3. If you get beginning black undergraduate students to read survey results showing that other black students felt ill at ease at first but then settled in well, they get substantially better grades. The stereotype threat is dissipated by narratives of success by others who are like them (Steele 165-166).
The book is also incredibly well-written and a fascinating narrative of the way that scientific discovery proceeds. One of the things that’s nice about it from a feminist epistemological perspectives is the way that it intermingles personal anecdotes with research studies, showing the way that each can affect the way that we understand the other.