ReThinking with Adam Grant
Breaking free of stereotype threat with Claude Steele
January 24, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is Claude Steele. He's one of the most influential social psychologists, not just of our time, but of all time.
Claude is best known for his pathbreaking research on stereotype threat, prejudice, and self-affirmation, and he's won more awards for distinguished scientific contribution and honorary doctorates than I can count. He's an emeritus psychology professor at Stanford, where he was previously Dean of their Graduate School of Education and the author of Whistling Vivaldi.
Claude Steele, what an honor to finally meet you.
[00:00:56] Claude Steele:
Well, it's a great pleasure to be here and right back at you with that sense of being honored. Pleasure to meet you, even electronically.
[00:01:04] Adam Grant:
Same. I've been a big fan of your work since I was an undergrad studying psychology, and I remember first reading about stereotype threat and finding it intellectually fascinating and just extremely, practically important.
And I, I remember that being a defining moment where I first started thinking about “Maybe I could become a, a psychologist. This work really matters, and it's endlessly interesting.” So thank you for the enormous impact you've had on my life. I have never gotten to hear the backstory of how you discovered it. Was there an experience in your life that paved, paved the way or a moment that opened your eyes?
[00:01:39] Claude Steele:
It was a long grueling process, but it was anchored, the effort, by a finding that, that was just an interesting puzzle. And the, and the puzzle was that at, at the University of Michigan where you two were, were a graduate student. By the way, when were you there?
[00:01:59] Adam Grant:
I was there from 2003 to ’07.
[00:02:00] Claude Steele:
Okay. We missed each other by, by a decade. But I saw a chart which graphed out students' grades as a function of the SAT scores they had when they entered. And the intriguing thing about the chart was that at every level of SAT score that a student had when they entered, African-American students were doing worse than other students in Michigan.
And the puzzle was if you'd told me they weren't on average doing as well as other students, I might have found that plausible in that, you know, there are differences in preparation level and prior schooling and educational opportunity, and so that could explain such a thing. But here you have them roughly equated by their SAT scores to the extent that that equates people in terms of preparation for, for college.
But at each level of preparation as measured that way, Black students were doing worse than other students. And why would that be? That, that was the puzzle. I had a lot of conversations with Dick Nisbett and Steve Spencer, and we went around and around, and we tried experiments and we got a research grant and we did some studies, and maybe four years later, Steve Spencer and I had a clear finding that later became stereotype threat.
So stereotype threat was no flashing insight. It was the product of sort of a grinding pursuit of what could be causing this underperformance as the term was. That's the origin.
[00:03:28] Adam Grant:
Fascinating. This is a rare case where data actually led to a discovery as opposed to something happened to you, and then you went to go and study it.
[00:03:36] Claude Steele:
Yes. Exactly. Every preconception that I had about what could be causing that underperformance was proven wrong by the data. So every idea we had, none of those seemed to work, but eventually, we got it a clear evidence. This was with women in, in math, women who were really good at math and committed, and advanced, uh, math.
We give them a very difficult test. And if we just gave it to them as a, as a, a standardized test of math skills, women did worse than, than men. We'd selected them for having roughly equal backgrounds in skill levels, in, in math. But when you give them a really difficult test at the frontier of their skills, women were doing worse than men, uh, of the classic underperformance that we'd observed in the, in the grades and college grade data we had. But we could eliminate that by making the stereotype about women's math ability irrelevant to taking that test.
So, uh, we did that, uh, Steve and I by just saying, “Well, you may have heard women don't do as well at stan—on standardized math tests as men do, but that's not true for this test. The test you're taking today is a test on which women have always done just as well as men involved.” With that simple instruction, their scores went up to match that of equally skilled men. So, that was the day, we had something—
[00:04:59] Adam Grant:
Seems more than something.
[00:05:00] Claude Steele:
—that seemed to account for this mystery of, of the underperformance.
[00:05:04] Adam Grant:
It's remarkable that on the exact same test. Right? Just randomly assigning them to—
[00:05:09] Claude Steele:
[00:05:09] Adam Grant:
—decouple their ability or their performance on that test from stereotypes about their group was enough to elevate their ultimate results.
[00:05:17] Claude Steele:
Yeah. We know now, you know, 20-plus years, maybe 25 years later. We know a lot of, um, of moderators of that effect and, and conditions. But when you look at a, a group that feels the performance is very important, and these, these are not women that are casually taking introductory math courses. These are women that are, that are really dedicated to it.
It's gonna be part of their career path, they assume, so they're invested. When they get frustrated on that test, they're distracted by the possibility that they're confirming the stereotype or will be seen to confirm the stereotype, and that distraction seems to interfere with performance.
[00:05:56] Adam Grant:
That's one of the things that I found so fascinating about your work is you wrote about this threat in the air, right, that I, I might be confirming a negative assumption about my group and that that actually disrupts, you know, not only my emotions but also my cognitive processing.
I was stunned to discover that just the threat of, of confirming a stereotype is enough to interfere with working memory, executive function, and also shift attention away from actually doing the task and toward worrying about, well, how well am I doing the task?
[00:06:28] Claude Steele:
[00:06:28] Adam Grant:
And, I love the way that you talked about this as having kind of constant background processing going on. Can you, can you talk a little bit about the psychology of what happens inside the mind when people are experiencing stereotype threat?
[00:06:40] Claude Steele:
Yeah. I think a term that, a term that I'm using these days to explain exactly that experience is churn. You're just in churn. What does this mean, and how am I doing, and what does the sense of frustration I have mean? Does this mean that that's true or just mean I'm gonna confirm this? A lot of worrying, fretting is going on. It does interfere with short-term. I mean, these days there's a pretty substantial literature, as you may know, on, on what precisely the mediating processes are, interference with short-term memory patterns of brain activation. Pre, pre-frontal cortexes, sort of suppress the amygdala, which is more sensitive to threat is activated, and so it, it puts a, uh, a person in, in quite a, a bit of distress.
I'm in, in the midst of writing another book, which tries to use the concept to explain a broader phenomenon in, in society, this idea of being in churn. Interracial conversations. Both parties, there are stereotypes that are relevant to how well the conversation goes, how they connect, this kind of thing. I, I've been using this example of, of a conversation between a set of, of African-American parents and a white school teacher at a typical parent-teacher conference about a young seventh-grade kid and the African American couple, they're dealing with stereotypes about their group.
They want, you know, “Boy, we want them to really invest in the, in developing the ability of our son, and this is our opportunity to get that to happen, to make that case.” And, and the teacher for her part, she's white. She's worried, “Well, yeah, I really am dedicated to this student's developing his skills, but I know if I say something critical here, I, I could be seen as racist.”
That's, that's the stereotype about my group that is relevant in this situation. So both parties enter the conversation with a good deal of churn and worry that, that you were just pointing to: “How am I doing? How will my, how will my identity here play out? How will it be interpreted? Am I gonna survive this situation?”
[00:08:55] Adam Grant:
I think in a situation like that, a lot of people will say, “Well, let's, let's make sure that both parties come really caring about that conversation going well.” And I think your research shows us that it's not enough to care. And sometimes caring might even backfire because the more invested you are in that situation going well, the more likely you are then to be distracted by the very stereotype that you're trying to disconfirm.
[00:09:17] Claude Steele:
That's a, an ironic dimension of this. Interestingly, the parties who are the least prejudiced often have the most churned because they don't want the conversation to go badly. They're invested in the conversation going well and smoothly and in a normal kind of rhythm to it. So when it doesn't do that, when there’s any trouble, then they start to worry: “Oh my goodness, I've got something to worry about here ‘cause I care about this.”
All stereotype threat effects assume the person is really committed to the activity. One way you can protect yourself against feeling stereotype threat is to not care about the activity involved, can disidentify with the performance. And then the fact that your group is stereotyped there, it's maybe something you don't approve of, but it, it's not personally relevant because it's not something that you take on as a part of your own self and, and, and your personal accountability. So that's one way to defend against it. But when you do care and you are invested, then the prospect of being negatively stereotyped is upsetting and distracting.
[00:10:26] Adam Grant:
I want to talk about how we fix this ‘cause you've studied a lot of remedies. Before we go there, I think one of the things that, that often gets underestimated when people learn about stereotype threat is because so much of the research has been about intellectual stereotypes of women in STEM or racial minorities on tests, we often forget that this can apply to any group that, you know, can be stereotyped.
I remember in one of your early papers, um, you showed that even white men who were good at math and knew it, you were able to activate stereotype threat by comparing them to Asians, who they thought in relative terms, were much better at math. And all of a sudden they're like, “Oh no, I'm not gonna be good at math.”
[00:11:06] Claude Steele:
[00:11:06] Adam Grant:
Talk to me a little bit about how stereotype threat can affect all of us, even if we’re not members of groups that we think of as traditionally marginalized or stereotyped.
[00:11:16] Claude Steele:
As individuals, we have a host of, social identities. I'm an African American, I'm a male. I'm of a certain age or vintage, shall we say. There, there are stereotypes about people of that vintage that say, for example, we're not good at technology, or we're behind in technology, so I can feel as I, uh, try to turn my television on in front of my much younger son-in-law, that, that I'm kind of on the spot, that as I experience frustration, I wonder, well, you know, how's he gonna see me?
That's a, a form of stereotype threat. A pretty mild one because I'm not so deeply identified with being able to turn my television on.
[00:11:59] Adam Grant:
I hope not.
[00:12:00] Claude Steele:
As human beings, we're incredibly sensitive to how other people see us. We like to have the, the, uh, the idea, let's put it that way, that we're very independent and, you know, we are our true selves, but when we're doing things that are important to us, and we're under the prospect or possibility of being seen in terms of some bad image of one of our identities, it gets our attention in a, in a way, and that that's a real fundamental mechanism of, you know, social regulation, I suppose.
[00:12:33] Adam Grant:
I, I definitely wanna make sure we talk about systemic and cultural solutions for schools, for workplaces, for other domains where stereotype threat is known to interfere with, with group performance. But I wanna start at the individual level since we're all grappling with this in one moment or another, and you've already given us one technique that is appealing in principle, but as you noted, it's hard to practice, which is “I'm just gonna choose not to care. I don't care how my future goes. I don't, you know what? I don't care at all if I confirm people's stereotypes of a shy introvert and bomb on stage. Like my, my whole career will be over, but I'm good with it.” How do you do that? How do you de-identify?
[00:13:13] Claude Steele:
It's usually a pretty painful process. Let's take women in math. I mean, you know, woman, uh, goes to college and she's been a good math student in high school, where often women do quite as much as, as well as, as men do. She takes introductory courses in college, and she does pretty well. Then as she gets, keeps going in that area, there are fewer and fewer women around. The, the work is really difficult and challenging, increasingly so, and the stereotype is, starts to emerge as a consideration, as part of her churn in her everyday churn about her experience. I think tragically at that point, a lot of women do disidentify. You, you start to look around for “Maybe I really like history. Maybe I'll major in history and become a lawyer. This whole STEM field, I look ahead, I don't see many women there. I'm not sure I'm gonna be comfortable in those environments.”
And, so the weight of that pressure can push a person into disidentifying, dropping out of their aspirations and goals, something that they’ve, for a long time, been committed to. I don't think it's, it's something that you can just turn on and off, like a switch in an area li—like that. Maybe in a, in another more casual area of life that isn't as important. “Well, I'm not good at turning on my television, but I'm really, really good at managing my Spotify, you know.” So you, you, disidentifying there might not be such a dramatic thing, but when it's something that, that you have cared about and, and invested in, the very principle ingredient of stereotype threat, then I, I think it is a pretty distressing experience.
[00:14:57] Adam Grant:
It seems like the, the psychology of attributions is, is useful here. Right? The mistake a lot of us make in stereotype threat situations is we think, “Okay, if this performance goes poorly, it's creating a, a permanent and pervasive signal about my lack of ability. You know that that's bad. I'm never gonna be good, and I'm never gonna be good at anything.”
And if people learn to make more—
[00:15:18] Claude Steele:
[00:15:18] Adam Grant:
You know, more specific and local attributions and say, “Okay, this performance or this test is not diagnostic of my ability. It's not diagnostic of my ability today. And it's also not diagnostic of my ability tomorrow. It's just a, a snapshot of my performance in one particular moment, which happened to be a very stressful, high-anxiety experience,” it's a little bit easier then to not dis-identify with the domain, but not overreact to the performance in that moment as representative of the domain. What do, what do you think of that?
[00:15:48] Claude Steele:
That's really well put. Uh, ‘cause I, I do think in, in that experience of churn, that state of, of, of churn, it can be reduced by exactly the line of thinking that you've, you've described that, that, “Okay, this isn—This isn't my whole soul here, my whole being on the line. It's just a particular test.” Now, the culture and the, the stereotype is often has in it as a kernel, the allegation that it is a deep and essential part of who you are. That's what's upsetting about it. So the threat is that you're about to confirm some real essential part of you.
But the defense, as you describe, is to particularize the experience and, and see it as just, you know, this is just a test. So I, I think the, the, the more we can demystify tests and get them seen outside of the, essentially, what should I say, almost eugenicist tradition of capturing an essential ability about somebody, I think we would reduce the, the, the stereotype threat effects around testing and, and intellectual ability and the like.
And I think gradually as a society, I'd like to believe we're moving in that direction, that we're getting more realistic about these things. I mean, it's okay to think in the thirties and the forties and the fifties, and an IQ test captured some essential dimension of who you are that was totally encompassing of your abilities, and that you could be reduced to your IQ number. But I think now we're just much more sophisticated about human cognition and, and human intellectual life. Hopefully, we're moving in a direction where exactly what you describe is, is available to people as a defense.
[00:17:29] Adam Grant:
Part of the problem is this is a big and infrequent experience, right?
[00:17:34] Claude Steele:
[00:17:34] Adam Grant:
You take a midterm or a final, it's a huge portion of your grade. It's something you know you get really worked up on because the stakes are so high. You don't have a lot of practice dealing with that level of anxiety. And it makes me wonder if more frequent, lower-stakes testing would be helpful.
We know already empirically it's better for learning, right? That, that when students are quizzed more frequently, they have better retention, better recall. But your work is leading me to wonder whether more frequent testing is also a way of lowering the anxiety that comes with stereotype threat and, and making each test less diagnostic of, of who I am or what I'm capable of.
[00:18:08] Claude Steele:
Brilliant. I couldn't agree more. You know, the idea, the whole threat of a standardized test. You know, you, you go all the way through high school, and at the end, your whole life is gonna be summed up by those two and a half hours of taking the SAT.
If, if you told a Martian that we have a test that we can give you, only takes two and a half hours or so, and it will give a score that will so accurately measure a person's capacities to do intellectual work that we can use it to, henceforth, allocate opportunity to people on a very general… And you can just give it to anybody, and it will give us that same score, that would be kind of implausible to somebody who hasn't been acculturated to think about tests in the way we think about them.
I couldn't agree more that that is where the threat is, is in part in the conception of the test and its allegation that what it's measuring is something essential about you. And then a way around it is to just treat tests as the useful things they can be, which is feedback on how you're doing as you learn an area of work like mathematics or STEM fields. Frequent low-stakes tests that give you real feedback about where you need to improve and how you can improve, that’s an incredibly useful regime. It’s this use in this other conception that makes tests more problematic.
[00:19:30] Adam Grant:
Well, okay. If that's the case, I want to have you put on your university leadership hat for a second. Uh.
[00:19:35] Claude Steele:
[00:19:35] Adam Grant:
You, you, you have been the Dean of the Stanford Ed School. You've been the Provost at Berkeley and Columbia. You've been Department Chair in Psychology at Stanford. You've led a lot of university departments and groups. What, what is the intervention here? Are we proposing that you get a mini SAT every week, and we just keep your highest score? What does the overhaul of this look like?
[00:19:58] Claude Steele:
That, that's almost precisely what I would point to is, is frequent low-stakes tests and using those in, in the admissions process at, at colleges, let’s say. Part of what's keeps the SAT in play is that people say, “Well, what else are we gonna do? You know, we gotta, we gotta have some kind of quote ‘fair measure’ here. So what else are we gonna do?” Well, I, this is something else to do. It takes a reconception, maybe some years of transition. I don't think it’s that… It’s not technically not that hard. Difficulty with being infusing it into the education systems that we have.
[00:20:30] Adam Grant:
Well, ETS, if you're listening, we have a proposal for you. And I, I do think this might be a window of opportunity because we've seen them.
[00:20:38] Claude Steele:
Some of my best friends are there. But nonetheless, here's a message for them.
[00:20:42] Adam Grant:
I think this moment is, is meaningful because we've seen for the first time in my memory, a bunch of top universities allows students to waive their standardized test scores as part of admissions.
[00:20:53] Claude Steele:
[00:20:53] Adam Grant:
And so this may be a moment when testing organizations are, are more open to experimenting than they were before. And universities are more receptive to it too.
[00:21:02] Claude Steele:
I think so. What, you know, one thing that isn't broadly known is that they don't predict that that well, so they don't really help that much. That is, I think, one of the reasons a lot of universities and university systems like University of California were not gonna do that.
The other downside, of the SAT since we're on that, uh, is that it discriminates pretty, pretty powerfully. SAT scores correlate with your income just about as well as they correlate with another taking of the SAT. That is their, they're very sensitive to the kind of educational experiences you've had in, in the past, and so if you've been benefited by being able to go to a, a strong K-12, you're gonna get higher scores that's tied to income.
So, if you use them in the admissions process, you're going to, it's gonna be harder for people with low-income minority backgrounds to get in. So that, and at the same time, they don't predict that well. So when you have a big public university system, supposed to serve the broad public like the University of California, that's a real downside as that, as those facts become known.
[00:22:14] Adam Grant:
While we're waiting for an overhaul, of, of the testing system—
[00:22:18] Claude Steele:
[00:22:19] Adam Grant:
—let’s come back to the, the individual level. Some of the, the work that you've done has, you know, has really changed my thinking about how we can prepare ourselves for stereotype threat situations. And of course, I'm thinking about your, your pathbreaking work on, on self-affirmation. Let's say I'm nervous about math, and I belong to a group that has negative stereotypes lingering around math.
Instead of trying to care less about math or the math test, I affirm some other aspect of my identity. And I, you know, think about how I'm really creative, or I'm an excellent writer, and that allows me to feel a little bit more secure in that domain. And then I'm, I'm less on edge about math. Please correct my interpretation of self-affirmation theory.
[00:23:03] Claude Steele:
That's perfect, dude. No correction needed.
[00:23:06] Adam Grant:
Okay, elaborated on that for me.
[00:23:08] Claude Steele:
The affirmation gives you a chance to gain a little perspective. “There are other things about me that, you know, I can rely on and that I believe in and that I'm good at. And, and so this particular testing situation or this particular course, my whole soul doesn't ride on this.” It gives you a little comfort, and it, it lowers the churn, the interfering churn that you're experiencing. You're just a little calmer now, and you probably pay attention to the test a little more clearly, clear eyed-ly, and, and do better now.
[00:23:40] Adam Grant:
Now, I think the, the power of self-affirmation is, you know, it, it just seems so much more palatable instead of saying, “I'm gonna care less about this domain”, “I'm gonna care more about other domains.”
[00:23:51] Claude Steele:
[00:23:51] Adam Grant:
And that helps me put it in perspective.
[00:23:54] Claude Steele:
[00:23:54] Adam Grant:
I think there are people who will hear about self-affirmation and think of, uh, Stuart Smalley, um, on SNL. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough.”
[00:24:01] Claude Steele:
I've worried about that for 30 years now.
[00:24:04] Adam Grant:
“Oh, dog-gone it, people like me.” Right? Uh, what is different about how you study self-affirmation from kind of the parody of daily affirmation of looking in the mirror and trying to build up your own self-esteem?
[00:24:17] Claude Steele:
The kind of general self-bromides that Stuart Smalley gave to himself, funny as they are, are not gonna work, that's not gonna affirm the self. They could even backfire. It's affirming something that you really know about yourself that is a real dimension of who you are, reflects commitments, achievements in the past. Let’s say when I was a kid, I was a swimmer, of all odd things. Most swimmers are not African American. But I swam for the YMCA, and I never really thought about that when I was 10 years old. I was pretty good at it. So that was something that I, was a part of me that I could rest my sense of self on. There, that's something good about me. And so raising that up as I dealt with other things just keeps the self in perspective.
[00:25:09] Adam Grant:
Yeah. So it actually sounds like, then there, there are two key distinctions there. One is that it has to be accurate, what you're affirming.
[00:25:16] Claude Steele:
[00:25:16] Adam Grant:
And two, it needs to be more specific. It can't be, you know, “I'm good” or “I'm likable.”
[00:25:22] Claude Steele:
[00:25:22] Adam Grant:
It needs to be “I have this particular skill.”
[00:25:24] Claude Steele:
If you say, “ I'm good and people like me,” really? Do you really know that? And, I, I mean, I suppose maybe for some rare person that might be true, but for most of us it's other things that are very specific. Even, you know, relationships with the family. “I'm valued in my family and my parents love me.” Those things become affirmations, which put particular threats in contexts that sort of takes the punch out of them.
[00:25:54] Adam Grant:
One of the things that I love about self-affirmation theory is how far-reaching the implications are even beyond stereotype threat. I've found myself, you know, reading the evidence on how it's an effective way to give narcissists critical feedback.
You know, if you're about to tell, let’s say a politician who has a big ego, uh, or you know, a boss, um, that they made a terrible decision. You could start by praising their imagination, or—
[00:26:19] Claude Steele:
[00:26:19] Adam Grant:
You know, or their curiosity or, or some other aspect of their, you know, of their identity. And then empirically, they do become more open to the criticism. This, I think this leads to an important modification of the, the ever popular, ever terrible feedback sandwich idea, or as it was called on Family Guy: “compliment sandwich”.
But I, I think what, what, what, one of the things that I learned from reading your work on self-affirmation is you have to be really careful if you're gonna lead with a compliment before you criticize, to separate the domains and say, you know, “I want to talk about your strength in this area, and then I want to give you some suggestions for improvement in a separate area.” And then I don't need to go back to the affirmation at the end.
[00:27:01] Claude Steele:
Right. Yeah. Yeah. You've kind of positioned the critique in a way that it doesn't indict the whole person in their whole soul. Once you've done that, you've, you don't have to do it again.
[00:27:14] Adam Grant:
Good. So we only need one slice of bread, not two.
[00:27:16] Claude Steele:
[00:27:16] Adam Grant:
It’s an open-face sandwich.
[00:27:18] Claude Steele:
[00:27:20] Adam Grant:
You've studied this in a way that I think is, is applicable to all of us and what you and some colleagues have called “the mentor's dilemma.” I have quoted this research more times than I can count where, yeah, I think what you've essentially taught people to do is to deliver tough feedback in a way that still conveys support and essentially saying, “Look, you know, I'm giving you these comments ‘cause I have very high expectations and I'm confident you can reach them.” Talk to me a little bit about how that works.
[00:27:46] Claude Steele:
You know, it kind of pulls a variety of ideas together from, from this body of research, but, but I think you have the potential. You don't have to say the ability, “I think you have the potential to meet those standards.” That's explosively effective with most people.
Many of us can look back on our own autobiographies and see when somebody, especially an adult, said something to us like that. It set your whole career path or path in life. The person's really saying, “I, I trust you here.” So it's a very powerful message when it, when it, when it it comes, but it's something we don't typically think we need to do or we don't think to do it.
Typically, we give feedback. “Well, here's the feedback.” Or we, or we say we do the Stuart Smalley thing. We say some, some very big positive bromite first. “You're, you know, you bring such wonderful energy to my class. Here's the feedback.” Those don't carry the same meaning as, as saying, “We use high standards, and I think you've got the potential to meet them.”
[00:28:50] Adam Grant:
It, it's surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth from someone who believes in your potential and cares about your success.
[00:28:58] Claude Steele:
[00:28:58] Adam Grant:
I will never forget the first time I taught your research in this, in this area to my students. I was teaching feedback. People do become more open to criticism if you just say roughly these 19 words: “I’m giving you these comments ‘cause I have very high expectations and I'm, I'm confident you can reach them.” Couple weeks later, I gave mid-course feedback forms out, and three different students had written at the top, “I’m giving you these comments ‘cause I have very high expectations and I'm confident you can reach them.”
I was like, “No, you don't have to recite the words verbatim. The point is to deliver the message, right, that my standards are high and I believe in your potential.”
[00:29:30] Claude Steele:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I guess they're thinking what's good for the goose is good for the gander. I dunno.
[00:29:38] Adam Grant:
I got a literal taste of my own medicine there.
[00:29:40] Claude Steele:
[00:29:45] Adam Grant:
We do like to insert a lightning round in these conversations, so are you up for one?
[00:29:50] Claude Steele:
[00:29:52] Adam Grant:
Excellent. All right. Claude, is there a stereotype that you personally had a hard time letting go of?
[00:29:57] Claude Steele:
Hmm. Yes. A lot of them. I'm a person of my, of my society and my time and there's, there's a lot of stereotypes, stereotypes about athletes. I was an athlete. I felt the threat of being seen as an athlete, but still sometimes that that was one that, “Oh, that's a stereotype. I shouldn't, perhaps I should see beyond that.” Yes.
[00:30:25] Adam Grant:
It’s comforting to know that even a world expert on stereotypes is not immune to them.
[00:30:30] Claude Steele:
[00:30:31] Adam Grant:
What about, is there a self-affirmation strategy that you're particularly fond of in your own life?
[00:30:37] Claude Steele:
I can think of relying on them throughout my life. As an African American, there's always available the possibility that you were being discriminated against. And that's what gives your, that's part of the weight, the psychological weight of being a minority is that you know the stereotypes and you know how you could be seen and you know, it could have played a role in this outcome or that outcome.
So my churn, my trying to work through that situation, I try to be as thoughtful and evidentially based as I can be in making, coming to those conclusions. You can't rule it out altogether that this didn't happen because of that or so you, you can't, but, but I wouldn't just fall into it easily. I, I try to really be careful about that, that kind of attribution.
So, when I look at my own life, my own career, and so on there, there's an area where I see myself doing what I've theorized about. I've prob—the theory is probably stolen entirely from that habit, that psychic habit of dealing with that ambiguity.
[00:31:40] Adam Grant:
Is there a favorite depiction in pop culture that you have of, of challenging stereotypes? I'm thinking maybe a movie, a TV show, a song, a book.
[00:31:49] Claude Steele:
There is that movie of the three Black women who were really tremendous, who were really amazing mathematicians who worked in the NASA program. I'm forgetting what the name of that of the movie was.
[00:31:59] Adam Grant:
[00:32:01] Claude Steele:
Yeah. Yeah. I was greatly affected by it because I've seen that, that there, there's a lot of intellectual force and, and power within a community of people who are seen as not having that, and that is always something I and African-Americans live with. Part of the tragedy is that you actually see the, the competence and the, and the genius, but it's got no outlet. Uh, so that, that, that's a, a, a movie that I think really helped bring to light a reality that undermines some stereotypes.
[00:32:37] Adam Grant:
Is there a lesson you learned as a swimmer that applies to your life today still?
[00:32:42] Claude Steele:
Oh, I learned so much as a swimmer. You'll probably understand this as a diver, how you can work really, really hard at something that most people don't care about. That was good, that was good training for being an academic.
[00:32:58] Adam Grant:
Luckily, you transcended that training.
[00:33:00] Claude Steele:
I can remember the cheerleaders in my high school, you know, kind of drawing straws about who had to go to the swim meets. Uh, that was good training. And you, you, you're dedicated to it, but you're not dedicated to it because you're going to get a lot of, of accolades and public recognition for it. There's something that helped.
[00:33:20] Adam Grant:
Nope. It’s a lot like when I hit the treadmill later today, and I'm gonna push myself to try to beat my personal best for no apparent reason.
[00:33:26] Claude Steele:
Yeah, for no apparent reason. Nobody cares. You would tell your wife that, well, whatever. Why weren't you home on time?
[00:33:35] Adam Grant:
From all your expertise, is there a piece of terrible advice you've gotten or a piece of advice that's often given that you think is wrong?
[00:33:44] Claude Steele:
This will sound controversial. I think we overstress the power of the individual against the circumstances of life, the contingencies that one has to contend with, and that if we, when we want to see change happen, we should pay a lot more attention to the contingencies and the, the things that a person has to deal with based on the identity they have, based on the family they come from.
We over-interpret the power of the individual as they move through their life against circumstances. We do fall in love with the idea of grit. I fall in love with the idea of grit. I love it. It's been a bi—it’s, it’s, it's something been essential to my, uh, to my moti—personal motivation throughout, uh, throughout my life, but you, you, you be resilient. And so you, you have to have that.
But, but we overlove it. We love it because it gives us psychologically a sense of control over things that I, that I, I, I've got control over. The, the most conservative, the most people, people who I've interviewed in my life who had the greatest commitment to grit were when I interviewed a number with David Sherman—student at the time, now a professor. We interviewed for six weeks a group of homeless mothers on welfare. They, they would say, you know, “Life is what you make it.” I just never forget that. The irony of that, here they are in those circumstances, and they, they had that as their bi—well, they have that because that's the only thing they can depend on is themselves, and they need to believe that that's true.
I, I would advise them to hang onto that idea. I, that's an idea I hang onto, but as a society, I think we need to get more mature. We can't rely on that to have a completely, to have a, a fair society. We need to be much more sensitive to circumstances, the conditions, the kind of threats people are under if we're going to move forward. And I, I, I see that as something I'd like to see as a bigger part of our future as a society, maybe even as a civilization.
[00:35:43] Adam Grant:
It's hard to disagree with that one. I think, I think we, we, we could all, I think probably be, I mean this is, is a version of the fundamental attribution error.
[00:35:53] Claude Steele:
[00:35:53] Adam Grant:
Still alive and well, right?
[00:35:55] Claude Steel:
[00:35:55] Adam Grant:
Attributing people's actions and their experiences too much to their own personal traits and too little to the conditions around them.
[00:36:04] Claude Steele:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
[00:36:07] Adam Grant:
So another application of self-affirmation that I, I think is just fascinating and timely is the work that, that you did with Cohen and Aronson on opening people's minds to evidence that challenges their beliefs. Talk to me a little bit about how self-affirmation can help someone rethink a conviction or maybe, you know, confront some evidence that they were not receptive to.
[00:36:30] Claude Steele:
You know, I think at, at base a kind of a manipulation of attention or expansion of, of what we're attending to in this situation. I feel this with regard to certain psychopathologies, even suicide. The person is tunneled in on something that's very distressing to them. They're so captured by the emotion in that situation that they don't see anything else about themselves. People: we're, we're capable of getting lost in a rabbit hole and having the whole worldview colored by the, the thing we're worried about and the thing we're distressed about at, at some level.
It colors everything, and what we need at this point is something that expands what we're able to attend to, and it, it starts to include other good things about ourselves. Other good things about other people, important things, brings in more of the world into that, into that hole, so you get out of it, and with a little perspective, the threatening thing isn't as threatening.
That's the basic story of, of affirmation. That, that’s kind of what it does. That's why people think they go repeatedly to church on Sunday. They're looking for that on a weekly basis. “Ah, the things that I'm worried about, they are bad. But look at the whole picture here.” It enables people to accept that war. And that's true, as you were just mentioning, about any kind of, any information.
You expand the, the perspective you bring. You take the person back up to 30,000 feet, so to speak. They're down at about 2000 feet, completely absorbed, bring them up to 30. They see a lot more, and that 2000-foot problem isn't so bad. It's more manageable. It isn’t… You aren't totally reducible to that problem. It gives us a little latitude.
[00:38:16] Adam Grant:
Excellent. So something we haven't talked about yet, and I've been very curious to hear your take on, is the small but intriguing literature on stereotype reactants. I think I first read the, the Laura Kray et al. paper when it came out showing that, that sometimes when people face a stereotype instead of being threatened by it, they actually become motivated to disprove it. What's your, your perspective on, you know, how, how common is that and how can we activate that response?
[00:38:45] Claude Steele:
One thing that's really important to point out about, really almost all of the stereotype threat data that where it's been looked at with regard to testing or maybe even athletic performance, it isn't that people, when they're under that pressure, are just giving up, and what the stereotype says, it's the opposite.
They're trying hard to defeat the stereotype, but when you double down and you'd really try to, in the middle of that timed test defeat the stereotype, “I'm gonna just prove this thing”-stereotype reactance, “I'm gonna just prove this thing”, now you're doing two things. Now you're taking the test and you're monitoring how well you're doing and whether you really are defeating that stereotype, and that all becomes part of the churn. It ironically increases the churn, which ironically increases the underperformance. Most of the performance-interfering effects of stereotype threat are actually mediated by stereotype reactants of, of that sort where you're trying too hard, and it can be a condition of life.
We looked at this with regard to professional women. I think I used the term “over-efforting” that, you know, “I'm gonna show that I, because I'm a woman and I have a family and a household… Man, I'm gonna show I can really do all these things,” and just kind of taking on almost too much to, in stereotype reactants to disprove the stereotype, so it, it becomes a weight of its own in a person's life and in and, and on their performances.
[00:40:18] Adam Grant:
What else can we do collectively if we think about this at work, for example, to try to mitigate against that reaction?
[00:40:24] Claude Steele:
That, that the context of, of our lives, of the work context, the people in it, our families, these can play really important roles in reducing stereotypes. If people feel accepted in a deep way, then the particular threat isn't as powerful and it's disruptive because what they're really after, acceptance, is kind of a short, in a pretty, pretty stable situation. But when that's all, when all of that is on the line, then the particular threats are powerful and really disruptive.
[00:40:54] Adam Grant:
I think your emphasis on acceptance and belonging is important because one of the mistakes that I see made in a lot of workplaces is I think well-intentioned people trying to counter stereotypes and inadvertently replacing them with what you might think of as a positive stereotype. Right?
Somebody asked me the other day, I was on stage, and in the Q&A, somebody said, you know, “Talk to me about the latest evidence about women as leaders. You know, a lot of people thought that women couldn't lead. But there's some new evidence suggesting that women might be better at leadership than men.”
Yes. Empirically, Meta-analysis, what, 95 studies, over a hundred thousand leaders by Paustian-Underdahl and colleagues. Yes, men are more self-confident in their leadership, but when you look at other people's ratings of their abilities, women do score higher. Do I believe though, that women are biologically wired to be better leaders than men?
Well at this point, maybe, in the state of the world. But no, in general, of course not. Of course not.
[00:41:51] Claude Steele:
[00:41:51] Adam Grant:
Do I believe that women have had to be that much better to break through glass ceilings and you know, get through bottlenecks in the middle and clear sticky floors? Absolutely.
[00:42:00] Claude Steele:
[00:42:00] Adam Grant:
But I don't think it helps people to say women are better leaders than men any more than it, you know, it helps to, you know, to, to say women are worse leaders than men.
[00:42:10] Claude Steele:
[00:42:10] Adam Grant:
It seems like the message is anyone has the potential to lead, and this is not a skill that should be tied to your gender or any other demographic group that you belong to.
[00:42:20] Claude Steele:
I couldn't agree more. I mean, I think that's so important to, to point out positive stereotypes can be intimidating too, and just creating them is not the answer. It, elucidating what maybe women, because of all the things you just described, experiences tied to their identity as women had to contend with things that gave them skills that, that transfer well to leadership positions that, but the real message there is that being good at leadership is rooted in a set of skills you can learn, and anybody can learn them.
[00:42:48] Adam Grant:
That makes so much sense. It brings me to a, I guess, a fundamental question, which in some ways is career question rather than a, you know, an individual study question, but, is there hope for eliminating stereotyping altogether? I understand that we're categorizing and pattern-recognizing creatures, but the whole idea has never fully made sense to me.
Why would you make assumptions about an individual based on properties of a group? Wouldn't you want to find out what is that individual like? And it just seems absurd to me that, that people are so quick to draw conclusions about a complex human being with different motives and personality traits and values and life experiences from, you know, one, one category that they happen to belong to and probably didn't even choose.
And I guess I'd, I'd love to know, this is very core to your expertise. What hope is there? Can we, can we reduce stereotyping, or do we just need to learn how to live with it and challenge it in the moment?
[00:43:45] Claude Steele:
I do think we can. I think it happens every day. There's this very little attended-to research that Dick Nisbet did years ago on the dilution of stereotypes.
They would give people a label. This person is, is uh, Latino. That’s all the information they would give. And then they would find that people tended to respond to that person in, in, in experimental settings, stereotypically. But if they put in a lot of seemingly irrelevant information about that person, that the person's father owned a yellow Packard, that the person went to a community college before he went to a c—you know, just that his, his mother-in-law played the piano. I mean, all kinds of irrelevant information.
The, it melted away the use of the stereotype. It individualized the person, and I think in that finding is a, is an important lesson that the more we know about people, the less likely we are to stereotype. I mean, stereotypes just becomes less useful to us in trying to understand people when we have a lot of information.
So in friendships, we often can get past that pretty quickly. We're not thinking about the stereotypes at all. We're not thinking about our friends in terms of group identities or stereotypes at all. Stereotypes come into play more when we don't have other information about people.
The policeman approaches a driver. They don't know each other, not a thing about them. That's where stereotypes are gonna be in dangerous play in a situation like that. They don't have anything else to use to interpret what's happening, what's unfolding in front of them, and that stereotype starts to shape how they interpret all of that.
And you got, you've got an incendiary situation driven in big part by stereotypes. But if the policeman found his brother-in-law behind the wheel, he knows so much else about them. It, it, the stereotype isn't as relevant there. So I, I think that's one way. I think also, I'm, I'm really fascinated now, now by the notion of trust and the, the effort to build trust that once we do come to trust people, stereotypes and these things tend to fade away as, as cause they're just not as relevant.
[00:45:54] Adam Grant:
Part of me wants to start a little earlier and say, you know, before we get to the point of being able to individuate someone or learn personal information about them, could we attack the very idea of stereotyping as exercising poor reasoning. You're making a big leap from, you know, maybe a, a questionable group average to a member of that group. Is that a logical thing to do? Is, is that a conversation worth having?
[00:46:20] Claude Steele:
I think a question a lot of us have as we learned these things, like we learn about stereotypes and the impact they can have. Well, why can't we just undo that? Unwire that somehow, in our socialization of people? Just, you know, when when we think that way, uh, a red flag goes up and we reel that back in.
It is possible, especially when you're in a situation where you can, you've got a little time to think about it. Stereotypes, I think have their greatest, uh, impact and danger when we're tired, we're in a hurry. We’re information overloaded, then they pop out as a shortcut. Here I am, stopping a citizen as a police officer in a, in a car.
There's a lot of threat going on there. There’s a high emotion in that situation. That's where they're particularly dangerous in that. Or at the end of the day, I'm really tired, and I've exhausted by all kinds of things, and I'm in a situation where the stereotype arises about how I'm perceiving someone.
I'm gonna be less able… I just don't have the energy to unravel it at that, that point. And I, bam, before I know it, I've seen that person and judged them. Now my colleague, Jennifer Eberhart, and really a number of social psychologists, but she has a particularly compelling anecdote to the kind of, the kind of speed, the kind of when I'm in a hurry or pressured use of stereotypes.
With policing, for example, as a police officer gets out of the car after having stopped somebody, she tries to put a lot of things in, into their routine that ha, that slows them down. And then a few linguistic suggestions about how to approach the person that deescalates the situation. Don't go in and immediately try to establish authority, but use, you know, polite language and slow the situation down.
Then you kind of diffuse the, the role of the stereotype in that situation. So I, I think we're getting more sophisticated about that, that approach to it, putting things in that, that frustrate the use of stereotypes. But if we don’t, and we are tired, and we are in a hurry, uh, people who would be appalled at themselves for stereotyping can wind up doing it without really a second thought.
That's what’s, that's kind of the frontier, if you will. In, in ritualized situations like policemen stopping, uh, drivers, you can begin to develop a systematic way of doing that. In organizations when we're around hiring and promoting, and there are systematic ways of helping us do that. U h, in doctors with patients, lawyers with clients, and I think there are, there are these, these ways that we can use, that will undermine the use of stereotypes in these important situations.
[00:49:15] Adam Grant:
I find that really encouraging and you know, occasionally when, when I talk about some of these systemic solutions to, you know, to trying to root out stereotypes and bias, I hear, “I understand, but we don't have time,” and—
[00:49:29] Claude Steele:
[00:49:29] Adam Grant:
The way, the way that I end up getting through to people in some of those moments is to say, so you're saying you don't have to make a good decision or an accurate judgment instead of a bad one? Because—
[00:49:40] Claude Steele:
[00:49:40] Adam Grant:
—if this decision doesn't matter, by all means, wing it. Do it quickly.
[00:49:45] Claude Steele:
Yeah. Yeah, get it out of the way.
[00:49:46] Adam Grant:
Yeah. If this counts, if there are real stakes, then isn't it important to try to do it as thoroughly as possible and to, to try to make sure that the, the process is as systematic and rigorous as possible? And it's kind of hard to argue with that one, right?
[00:50:01] Claude Steele:
Yeah, I, I mean that's a, that's a good hook.
[00:50:05] Adam Grant:
Try it at your own risk.
[00:50:05] Claude Steele:
I, I, I, I, yeah, that, that I hope is effective because in, in, in many of these situations, people do wanna do a better job. They don't really know how, they don't know that this would be important, that to slow the thing down, you know, their classic ways, but you, you select the, the, the next horn player for the symphony with a blind test as opposed to having the, the musician be visible.
There, there are a host of things that I think as a society we're gonna get better at. My hope there because I do think people want to get better at it. Our society aches for these kinds of things at some level. They, you know, it's not that everybody enjoys anti-bias training or anything of that sort, because there, I think the part of the problem is often the offering of the training carries with it the allegation that you need the training, and there may be something about you that, and I, I think that puts up a real stereotype threat resistance that can undermine things. But I think as we get a little, a little beyond that and, and, and recognize that we can use the context, we can partner with the context of our organizations in, in undermining this. It isn't just something that individuals have to control themselves. There are things that, that, that organizations can do that will systematically reduce the play of stereotypes.
[00:51:29] Adam Grant:
Well, Claude, this has been wonderful. Thank you for taking the time.
[00:51:32] Claude Steele:
My great pleasure. I'm a real podcast devotee. I don't know if I need to say more about how much I've heard you over the years, and it's been a real pleasure to talk to you.
[00:51:41] Adam Grant:
Well, thank you. We need to get you in the audio universe more often.
[00:51:44] Claude Steele:
Thank you, Adam. Real pleasure.
[00:51:47] Adam Grant:
Pleasure's all mine.
[00:51:47] Claude Steele:
[00:51:51] Adam Grant:
My biggest takeaway from this conversation is the realization that we are constantly giving bad advice to other people. “Try harder. Care more.” Sometimes that's not just unhelpful, it's actually counterproductive. And I think we don't just do this to other people. We do it to ourselves too, right? Every time we beat ourselves up for saying, “Well, I just didn't prioritize that task enough”, or “I need to raise the stakes”, we’re increasing the risk that just as we see with stereotype threat, that we're gonna worry more about whether we're good enough, we're gonna put more pressure on ourselves to be perfect, we're going to be distracted and even suffer a hit to our short-term working memory or our executive function.
I've read some of this evidence before, but it wasn't until I talked with Claude that it hit me that in some of the situations where we care most about our results, it actually serves us to care less, and it's hard to do that, as we discussed. Thinking about other things that you care about, other areas where you excel seems to be a powerful step toward putting each performance, each test in perspective. And that's something we could probably all benefit from.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced in mixed by Cosmic Standard.
Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
[00:53:36] Claude Steele:
But if the policeman found his brother-in-law behind the wheel, there'd be, and brother-in-law could be of a different group too. The stereotype isn't, isn't as relevant there.
[00:53:46] Adam Grant:
I think you underestimate the number of people who have stereotypes of brothers-in-law as a group.
[00:53:53] Claude Steele:
I probably did.
[00:53:55] Adam Grant:
Let me, let me tell you some things about brothers-in-law.