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Claude Steele On Understanding ‘Stereotype Threat’ — Part 1

Keynote speaker and social psychologist Claude Steele at the 2017 Diversity Symposium. He discussed his research on stereotype threat theory, and how educators can build trust within universities to lift this threat from the classroom. Photo by Olive Ancell
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Stanford University social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele has provided substantial contributions to the world of diversity, cultural acceptance, and understanding of the human brain in terms of race, stereotypes, and social norms.

At the 2017 Diversity Symposium in Fort Collins, Colo., Steele explained specific ways universities can create a less-threatening setting for diversity among college campuses. His overarching question for the speech was, “How do you create a successful diverse community?”

Steele explained that addressing threats to the self, how these threats infiltrate the mind and understanding their consequences is the step in the right direction.

Steretype threat

Stereotype
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In order to recognize the findings of Steele’s research, one must first understand his social-psychological theory of stereotype threat.

This theory can be defined when an individual is in a situation where a negative stereotype affects one of his/her/their identities, in which one knows they could be judged by other groups in the situation.

The more the individual cares about the task at hand, the more stereotype threat will inhibit their intellectual ability of the topic.

Are men better at math than women?

A classic example Steele used to explain this threat was the stereotype that men are better at math than women.

Stereotype
Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

In one of his first research studies about two decades ago, results showed that women did around one standard deviation below the mean of men on a facilitated math exam when the stereotype was known and present. This equated to about 15 IQ points difference.

However, in the same study when researchers convinced participants that the test had no effect on gender, race, etc., women performed equally to men. Steele spent years of research testing this theory throughout many different populations, including race, gender, sexuality, and various cultural factors. His findings always spit out the same result.

Steele on ‘The least prejudiced person’

Steele’s research found that stereotype threat is most prominently experienced among whites in interracial conversations revolving around race. The threat was not experienced, however, in an interracial conversation not revolving around race. The threat is also more prominent in people who have the strongest commitment to the topic or are the “least prejudiced person.” Hence, the more passionate one is about the task or situation at hand, the more stereotype threat will inhibit their abilities.

Stereotype threat hinders mental ability because one’s mind does not want to be susceptible in a situation they are passionate about. Vigilance causes one to be on edge, attempting to watch every move in order to say or do all the right things.

At the same time, the brain is trying to assess the extent to which the individual is being judged, while also attempting to perform the task at hand. When the threat is present, the mind is trying to juggle too many thoughts at once, leading to distraction, frustration and inevitably, underperformance.

Steele on human perceptions

Steele explained that it’s not our fault, as human nature forms our perceptions around how we experience life. The base structure of society and its various systems cause people to form their perceptions around recognizable and unrecognizable groups and behaviors. Because society has always revolved around class, race, and gender separations, our brains evolve our defense mechanisms around these classifications.

The same findings have been shown to occur universally, but in their own ways revolving around specific cultural and societal norms. For example, France is not as affected by race as many other western cultures. They do, however, experience extreme stereotype threat among social classes.

So how do we eliminate this inevitable threat among society? Steele had an answer for that as well, which we’ll touch on in the next post.

With a passion for Journalism and Media Communications, Olive Ancell is a Third Culture Adult and content creator who is passionate about social and cultural differences that have the potential to bring the world’s people together. She has traveled to nine countries, which has influenced her love of travel and the desire to share unique world perspectives that can offer unlimited opportunities to connect people in different ways. Her talents in content creating include photography, videography, writing, and multiple art mediums. Ancell believes the power of media is one of the most powerful tools for international awareness and communication, which can be utilized or abused. Olive is determined to be a part of a larger picture, in which the use of media for coverage ranging from hyper-local to international is encouraged to celebrate and elevate diversity and all of the Earth’s spectacular cultures.

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