More needs to be done to create social settings in which people can function as a comfortable part of the whole, said psychologist Claude Steele, PhD, in a 2003 APA Annual Convention speech in which he accepted two awards--the 2003 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award and the 2003 Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest Award.

Too often, he said, schools, corporations and other such large groups have features--ways of being organized, group compositions, philosophies about diversity--that can cue people to worry about whether they may be disadvantaged by their social identity--their gender, age, race, religion, nationality, profession and sexual orientation. This social identity threat can be significant enough to interfere with their performance in a setting, contributing to some of the group achievement gaps that still plague our society, Steele said.

Most recently, Steele's research has focused on identifying ways that these settings can be made more "identity safe"--that is, reducing the social identity threat people can feel. He argued that solving this problem is the most critical challenge Americans face in achieving a successfully diverse society.

Steele, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, said his research on the interaction of social identity and social situations aims to illuminate ways environments can be improved.

"We want to develop principles that one can use to craft settings like schools and workplaces where people can [feel identity safe]," Steele said.

The reason it's important to create accepting environments, said Steele, is that lack of acceptance compromises academic achievement and social trust. The threat of negative reactions to social identity, what he calls "stereotype threat," can impair a person's ability to flourish, Steele said.

"Cues in a setting put one under the rational impression that they could be under threat of fulfilling the stereotypes against them and being judged by their identity within a group," Steele said.

Hidden damage of stereotypes

For example, Steele conducted research on whether negative stereotypes about women's math ability might influence their performance on difficult math problems. His research team gave men and women with comparably high math SAT scores a challenging math test to determine if its difficulty might activate negative stereotypes about women's math ability. Results indicate that this happened: Men outperformed women on the math test, but not on a similarly difficult English test.

In addition, Steele said, others have found that stereotype threat effect increased when more men were present and when women were told the test was biased toward men. Steele explained that the research shows the strong tie between deeply held beliefs about social identity--what he calls "contingencies of social identity"--and academic performance.

"The contingency tied to a person's social identity in a setting can affect their cognitive abilities," he said.

These contingencies, Steele said, are part of why minority students may fail to succeed in majority-group academic settings. As evidence of this, he noted that African-American students show lower academic achievement in schools with low African-American populations than those in schools that are predominately African-American or balanced. Rather than resulting from overt prejudice, he said, low achievement likely stems from subtle cues in the environment--that black students are different, less valued or from a culture that routinely fails to succeed.

"The resulting ruminative conflict and sense of threat can become a chronic feature of a person's experience in the setting--undermining performance and relationships in the setting and over time fostering disagreement and dis-identification with the setting," Steele said. "It leads to a feeling of discomfort."

Further research has shown this to be the case, Steele said. "At elite schools, when you control for all the factors except stereotype threat, you still have a grade gap between white and black students, but when you control for stereotype threat, it goes away," he said.

Implications for psychologists

For psychologists, understanding the effects of social and environmental stereotype cues can augment more internal biological and psychological explanations of behavior, he said. What's more, their research on such cues can lead to insights into how to reduce their negative impact.

Devising remedies for social identity threat will pose challenges, he said. However, Steele added, because the cues that cause it are often changeable aspects of the environment, it is a challenge worth tackling. And in the meantime, there are some common-sense ways, he said, that identity safety can be encouraged in large institutions:

  • Foster interaction among identity groups.

  • State value for diversity outright.

  • Teach about the dynamics, challenges and value of diversity.