The Situationist

Not Just Whistling Vivaldi

Posted by Emily Pronin on May 1, 2010

One of the great social psychologists of our time, Claude Steele, was recently on NPR discussing his new book Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The book is a moving personal account and a compelling scientific discussion of how stereotypes shape the thoughts, feelings, and actions of those whom they target. Steele is the originator of “stereotype threat,” an idea that has spawned countless experiments around the world and profoundly impacted the way that we think about the racial achievement gap in American schooling.

Stereotype threat is a situationist concept if ever there was one. The idea goes like this:  In certain situations, all of us are subject to negative stereotypes because of identities we have (as a professor, we might be stereotyped as absent-minded, as a lawyer as argumentative, or as an African American as violent). The experience of stereotype threat occurs when a person becomes aware that, in a particular situation, he or she may be judged according to a negative stereotype, or may even confirm that stereotype via his or her actions. For example, an African American high school student might experience stereotype threat when taking a standardized test of “intellectual ability.” I sometimes experience stereotype threat when I’m stopped on the street for driving directions (and fear that any error or imprecision could contribute to the stereotype that females lack spatial ability).

Steele and others have found that this experience can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. African American college students who have shown equal math ability to their white peers perform worse on standardized math test problems when they are told that those problems measure intellectual ability (a claim that makes the race stereotype relevant), but they perform equally well when told that those same problems measure problem solving in general—and are not a test of intellectual ability. Whites perform worse at golf putting than African Americans when they are told that it involves innate athletic ability (something that whites are stereotyped to have less of than their African American peers)—but perform better than African Americans when they are told it taps into “athletic intelligence.” And, the effects of stereotype threat go beyond test performance. Women in math and science cut off aspects of their feminine identity when they walk into math class or science lab, in order to avoid being subject to negative stereotypes about their abilities (full disclosure: I was a student of Steele, and this finding was from our research together – pdf).

So why is the book entitled Whistling Vivaldi?  The somewhat mysterious reference is inspired by a story once told by Steele’s friend Brent Staples, a writer for The New York Times. Staples described how, as a young African American graduate student living in Chicago, he found that whites sometimes seemed fearful as he approached them while walking down the street. Over time, he found himself whistling Vivaldi as he walked past, as a way to prevent others from seeing him through the lens of a negative stereotype about young African American men and proneness to violence. His whistling of classical music suggested that the stereotype did not apply to him, and that he was a man of education, “culture,” and “class.” The story is a moving one. It captures the burden of being in situations where we are subject to stereotypes, and also the remarkable capability we have to function in the face of them, albeit at a cost for our mental and psychic resources. Vivaldi probably couldn’t have composed the “Four Seasons” (or solved any difficult math problems) if he’d had to whistle Corelli at the same time.

–Emily Pronin

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To read more about Whistling Vivaldi or purchase the book, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Effects of a Black President,” “The Nerdy, Gendered Situation of Computer Science.” “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’,” Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” The Gendered Situation of Chess,” The Situation of Gender-Science Stereotypes,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” The Situation of Gender and Science,Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

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6 Responses to “Not Just Whistling Vivaldi”

  1. [...] From The Situationist about Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. (Hat tip for the link to @ruxandarale) [...]

  2. That is fascinating and poignant. I’m going to be reading the book as soon as I get it.

  3. […] of stereotypes and bias. The title of his book alludes to a story his friend, NY Times writer, Brent Staples once shared. An African American man, Staples, recounts how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved […]

  4. […] title of Steele’s book alludes to a story his friend New York Times writer Brent Staples once shared. An African-American man, Staples recounted how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved […]

  5. […] The title of Steele’s book alludes to a story his friend New York Times writer Brent Staples once shared. An African-American man, Staples recounted how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved […]

  6. […] civilly. He took to carrying books around with him, so he would appear more acceptable. (Not unlike whistling Vivaldi.) He once commented “people look out their windows at you and see a neighbor.* They look out […]

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