photo of Claude Steele

On Friday, Sept. 9, the MSU Psychology Department hosted Dr. Claude Steele, of UC Berkeley, to give the 2016 Messe Lecture.

On Friday, Sept. 9, the MSU Psychology Department hosted Dr. Claude Steele, of UC Berkeley, to give the 2016 Messe Lecture. Dr. Steele is, perhaps, most famous for introducing and studying the concept of “stereotype threat.” In his talk, Dr. Steele described his initial experiments demonstrating this concept in social psychology, discussed the universality of this idea and, in a hopeful note, described how an understanding of the effects of stereotype threat in society could be used to work toward the creation of a “science of diverse communities and institutions.”

As Dr. Steele explained, stereotype threat is an explanation for the underperformance of the members of a group whose abilities are stereotyped (negatively) in society at large, even when the individuals are matched for ability and interest and would (by all objective measures) be expected to perform as well. In a classic experiment, Steele and Aronson gave a portion of the GRE verbal exam to African American and white students matched in their previous abilities (as measured by the SAT). When the experimental subjects were informed that this test was a “measure of intellectual abilities,” African American students substantially underperformed with respect to white students. However, when informed instead that the questions were purely a “laboratory problem-solving task that was not diagnostic of ability,” this difference disappeared! Steele and Aronson hypothesized, and their work and subsequent work bore out, that African American students underperformed relative to white students under the first condition because the instructions that the exam was a test of intellectual ability triggered concern (stereotype threat) in the African American students that they were in danger of confirming the social bias that they were not as able as white students. Work by Steele, collaborators, and many others have shown that these conditions occur in many other situations, including the ability of women (in the US) to perform on tests of math and science, and of white athletes to perform well against African American athletes.

Steele explained the causal mechanism for stereotype threat through an analogy. Suppose you enter a house, expecting to be safe and to relax – but that upon entering you are told,“There’s a snake in the house!” This information would profoundly affect your ability to relax and to enjoy time in the house. Similarly, when stereotype threat is invoked through the situation and conditions present, members of stereotyped groups cannot just “relax” and focus on the subject at hand – rather, they must carry the additional cognitive burden of worrying about confirming the social stereotype which expects them to fail.

It would be hard to overestimate the consequences of stereotype threat for the educational success of African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and other underrepresented groups at universities like MSU. As Steele explained, the “clues” which engender stereotype threat are deeply embedded in history and society. The existence of stereotype threat implies that, even if all explicit and implicit bias were eliminated in society, this internalized remnant of bias would continue to hamper the ability members of the stereotyped group to prosper and succeed to their fullest ability.

Steele continued, however, by emphasizing that since stereotype threat is induced by environmental and social conditions, it can also be minimized or eliminated by them. He noted that, in societies where women are commonly scientists or mathematicians, for example, stereotype threat does not affect women’s performance in these areas.

The crucial issue, Steele suggested, is the need to form communities based on trust – in which differences are openly acknowledged – not “color-blind” but tolerant and accepting – but in which these differences are not equated with differential ability.

At MSU, our core value of inclusion instantiates this ideal. As explained in our Statement on Core Values: “We embrace a full spectrum of experiences, viewpoints, and intellectual approaches because it enriches the conversation and benefits everyone, even as it challenges us to grow and think differently.” We must work every day, in every classroom and every residence hall, to live up to this value and to minimize the effects of bias and stereotype threat.


Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email sekhar@msu.edu.

R. Sekhar Chivukula is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.