"I have a memory of the first time I realized I was black." This opening line of Whistling Vivaldi seems at first glance quite simple, but as you read on it comes to represent a fundamental truth about the relationship between the individual and society.
The truth is the psychological reality that our hopes, dreams and aspirations are tied inextricably to our place in a social hierarchy and that our identities within this social hierarchy define the journey our lives will take. At least, this is the case unless we can understand and harness the psychological power of stereotypes and social identity.
Claude Steele's book is all about stereotypes - the beliefs people hold about different social groups - and how these beliefs affect our attitudes and abilities. It describes how the author came across a brand-new psychological phenomenon that he named "stereotype threat", and how this phenomenon fundamentally changed the way psychologists thought about how stereotypes shape our lives.
Formally defined, stereotype threat is "a situational predicament felt in situations where one can be judged by, treated in terms of, or self-fulfill negative stereotypes about one's group". This translates to a profound behavioural observation: academic and intellectual performance is not simply contingent upon actual ability, but also the shared beliefs that people hold about the performance and abilities of different social groups.
Steele's controlled experiments (as well as those of many others since) have demonstrated the stereotype-threat effect. In his landmark study, he showed that the performance of black students taking an IQ test was reduced by the simple belief in the stereotype that black people are not as intelligent as white people.
Furthermore, it is not a phenomenon restricted to race. Studies have shown that women perform worse in maths tests when told their scores will be compared with men's (reflecting the stereotype that women are not as good as men at maths). Older people do worse in memory tests when you tell them that their recall will be compared with young people's (reflecting the stereotype that older people have poorer memory than young people).
There is a range of other groups for whom the effect has been demonstrated. In essence, when people believe they will be judged as a member of a group, rather than on their individual merits, and if they believe the group fits a stereotype that is typically disadvantaged in the testing domain, they will perform less well.
The awareness of one's group status in these situations can be so subtle as to be undetectable by the individual concerned, what Steele refers to as a "threat in the air".
Stereotype threat has been one of the biggest concepts in academic psychology for the past two decades. Ask any social psychologist what it is and he or she will be able to tell you, which is some measure of the considerable scientific impact it has had.
I remember attending a conference in Texas a few years ago where it seemed to be the focus of almost every symposium (and if it wasn't, people even joked: "by the way, this isn't a symposium on stereotype threat"). Its impact stems partly from the fact that the effect is just so robust. In some studies, you only have to hint at the suggestion that one's gender or race will be taken into account to observe performance detriments.
But of course, stereotype threat effects are important not just because they are replicable by scientists. The work has attracted so much attention because it speaks directly to a social issue of such immense importance. Stereotype threat vividly illustrates the damaging effect that stereotypes can have on individuals. With its considerable negative impact on performance, and the consequent opportunities that arise (or do not) from the use of quantitative assessment in education, it is easy to see the implications for efforts to promote an inclusive society. At every level of the educational system, stereotype threat can literally change who we are, who we aspire to be and who we become.
The book is masterful in its communication of both complex concepts and important implications. Steele begins with a vivid account of a social and intellectual tipping point in his childhood (his first experience, in the 1950s, of segregation on the basis of race). This sets the scene for a narrative that expertly combines personal experience with hard science. The storytelling approach works really well - we're taken along with the development of the research as it happened, with Steele giving gracious nods to his various collaborators along the way.
The studies on stereotype threat have been rigorously experimental, but Steele covers them without tripping over the technicalities. He is always aware of his audience and explains the complexities of the studies in a clear and engaging way.
His reflections on how individuals have coped with the consequences of stigmatisation are cogent and effective. The fourth chapter is notable in this respect, engaging the reader with historical anecdotes on the subject of "passing" (a practice, common in the 1920s, in which African-Americans adopted a white identity to avoid stigma and discrimination).
Steele understandably focuses on US culture, but stereotype threat is just as relevant to the UK. UK Higher Education Statistics Agency data from 2008 show, for instance, that of UK students of engineering and technology at university, only 15 per cent were female and 85 per cent were male. Stereotype threat provides at least one explanation for how these disparities emerge, and how they are propagated.
An important aspect of the book is its documentation of tasks and techniques to counter, reduce or reverse the negative impact of stereotype threat. In chapter nine, Steele describes some of this research. He particularly focuses on self-affirmation, which entails encouraging people to assert positive qualities that they, as individuals, possess before entering a testing situation. There are other techniques as well. Simply informing women about research on stereotype threat can avoid detrimental performance in maths. Informing African-American test-takers that intelligence is malleable and situationally defined can reduce the threat effect. Other studies have found that thinking about strong, positive and relevant role models before entering a testing situation can also be effective.
An obvious role model for African-Americans is the current US president, and Steele makes good use of Barack Obama's iconic campaign and presidency. Notable is the recounting of a speech in which Obama asserts the value and wisdom that his multiple identities can afford his presidency. It's a powerful point, and it brought home to me a profound sense of our ability to take control and rise above the situational constraints that bind us; to avow the value in our identities, not hide them, and draw on their collective strength.
In many ways, the book is all about the tension between what society tells us we should be and our power to assert our individual hopes, dreams and aspirations; and in these informing and inspiring goals, Whistling Vivaldi is a resounding success.
Claude Steele is professor of psychology and provost at Columbia University.
He studied for his undergraduate degree at Ohio's Hiram College and obtained his PhD from Ohio State University in 1971. He has taught at the universities of Utah, Washington and Michigan and, before joining Columbia, was the Lucy Stern professor of psychology at Stanford University.
His twin brother, Shelby, is also in academia, and is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
Steele is best known for his work on cognitive dissonance - the idea that the mind dislikes psychological inconsistencies. This led to his creation of the "self-affirmation" theory, which states that the ultimate goal of the self is to protect an image of its self-integrity, morality and adequacy.
Whistling Vivaldi And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us
By Claude M. Steele
W.W. Norton, 224pp, £18.99
Published 1 June 2010