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Provost and psychologist: Claude Steele explains his theory of stereotype threat

Although Columbia knows Claude Steele as its new provost, his University Lecture on Tuesday night brought the psychologist of 35 years back to his professorial roots.

Before moving to New York, Steele taught at Stanford University as a professor in social psychology. On Tuesday evening, his crowded Low Library lecture, “Identity and Stereotype Threat: Their Nature and What to do About Them at School and Work,” was based on his upcoming book, “Whistling Vivaldi.” Steele rose to fame within the field of psychology with his theory of stereotype threat, which addresses the threat implied in any situation by virtue of a predetermined stereotype’s existence.

University President Lee Bollinger warmly welcomed both Steele—who, in a recent interview, recalled bumping into Bollinger at the University of Michigan’s gym—and Steele’s wife, Dorothy.. Bollinger lauded their choice to come to Columbia despite the familial “tug of war” they experienced during their decision to move from coast to coast. With one child in California and another in New York, the decision was tough, but Bollinger concluded that, “If we know anything about psychology ... their decision to move here was the best.”

After praising Steele’s scholarship, Bollinger said the “best way to introduce him to the University” is to “just sit and listen to him talk about his ideas.”

For his part, Steele said he is enjoying the “thrill of an anthropologist learning about a new place.”

Two problems launched Steele’s career, he said: the underperformance of women and minority students on cognitive tests in academic settings, and what he called the “diversity problem,” or the difficulty that arises when trying to make a situation comfortable for everyone, while at the same time integrating different groups.

“Everyone experiences a stereotype a couple times a day,” Steele said, highlighting the thrust of his speech.

“Identity contingencies,” he said, are the identity questions central to daily existence. For example, Steele said he developed an identity contingency the moment he first discovered he was black. “If you have to deal with things in situations because you have a certain identity, that identity will be important to you,” he said.

“Most psychologically impactful identity contingencies are those that in some way threaten the individual,” he said, while explaining that “stereotype threat” is the most important identity contingency.

Steele then described the experiments he conducted to gauge stereotype threat in schools. One discussed female performance on math tests. In this experiment, psychologists gave mathematically-adept, high-school level men and women a difficult math test. The results showed that women performed much worse than the men because they “experienced a different type of frustration” when faced with difficult problems. As the women became frustrated, they grappled with the fear of conforming to a gender stereotype, while the men were unaffected. The psychologists then conducted the experiment again and they told the subjects that women generally perform well on this specific test, and the women’s scores increased dramatically.

Steele then asked, “What makes the threat really stronger and what makes it weak?”

Steele said that “people that show this effect the most are the strongest. … They are the ones that care the most … , have the most skills … , the ones that try too hard.”

“Identity threat is intrinsic to most diverse settings” and it is “the default state of affairs unless something is done to reduce it,” Steele said. “Some level and salience of identity safety cues in a setting can foster trust even when other cues in the setting might suggest otherwise,” he added optimistically.

After his presentation, more faculty members than students asked Steele questions.

In fact, Michele Moody-Adams, the new dean of Columbia College, asked the first question. She inquired about what should be done in a situation where the threat is coming from the group itself, like when a mother tells her daughter that girls always do worse in math and to not worry about it.

Steele replied that he “doesn’t know” but that everyone should “try to make people aware how costly these situations are.”

Another question came from a student asking about Muslim stereotypes in society. She asked what Muslim women are supposed to do when they feel they are perceived to be weak or subservient.
While Steele replied that he didn’t have the knowledge to answer the question, he answered that “generally it will have negative effects.”

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