Upfront

Columbia provost and social psychologist Claude M. Steele, PhD, will kick off the 2011 Annual Convention, in Washington, D.C. Steele will discuss his pioneering research, which found that students’ academic performance can suffer if they fear others are seeing them through the lens of race or gender — the phenomenon now known as stereotype threat.

The role of this research in providing an alternative to genetic interpretations of racial, gender, and class differences in intelligence makes him a perfect fit for this year’s convention, with its presidential theme of how psychology can help promote social justice, says APA President Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD.

“Dr. Steele has demonstrated that the achievement gap can be reduced by helping those subjected to suspicions of inferiority to understand and remove that stigma,” says Vasquez.

One classic experiment by Steele, published in 1995 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (No. 65, No. 5), found that black students’ performance deteriorated on a variety of tests when they thought that the tests assessed their intellectual abilities. The students’ performance rebounded when they thought the tests were meaningless laboratory tasks. The first condition, like everyday test-taking, caused black students to spend brain power suppressing the worry that they might be seen as less capable than other students, Steele found.

Subsequent research has found that stereotype threat can be activated in very subtle ways, says Steele. “Imagine a woman going to take a test in a math department, walking down a hall lined with portraits of famous male mathematicians,” he says. “Her gender identity is going to be at the front of her mind.” Indeed, merely being in a room with more men than women can suppress women’s math performance, Steele and his colleagues have found (Psychological Science, Vol. 18, No. 10).

The news, however, isn’t all bad. Steele and others have found that you can inoculate students against stereotype threat. For example, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 1), found that simply showing college freshmen survey results from more senior African-American students that revealed their early struggles and how they persevered bumped the African-American students’ sophomore GPA by a letter grade.

In his own experience as a black psychology graduate student at Ohio State University, Steele feels he was protected from stereotype threat by professors who believed in his intellectual abilities and expected him to excel. “They created a space where I felt safe from stereotypes,” he says. “That’s something we need to do for all of our students.”

—S. Dingfelder