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.
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To watch news report about very interesting research by Sian Beilock and Allen McConnell building off of Claude Steele’s work, click on the video below.