Interview with Dr. Claude Steele

by Dr. Karen Morell and Dr. Ben McCune, December 11, 2006


Dr. Steele discusses the importance of mentors. (3.9MB)

Dr. Steele discusses the concept of incremental ability as a means of overcoming stereotype threat. (3.6 MB)

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Dr. Claude SteeleDr. Karen Morell: We're here this afternoon near the Stanford campus with Professor Claude Steele. We would like to ask a few questions that might help the TRIO community better understand how they can support their students to get the most out of their education and be able to overcome some of the challenges in the environment of the students.

We know the TRIO staff want to create the environment to support students to complete their education. What steps does your research suggest they might take?

Dr. Claude Steele: I suppose if I jumped ahead and got to an answer before unraveling a lot of analysis, I would say that the combination of genuinely challenging and interesting work with an affirmation of their students' abilities to do that work has, in our research, proven to be a pretty reliable means of mobilizing kids.

Stepping back to the analysis for a second, I think a lot of our work, to the extent that it does reveal things, it reveals that members of groups whose abilities are negatively stereotyped in the broader culture suffer special pressure in those areas where their abilities are negatively stereotyped. It holds for, let's say, whites in certain athletic domains as well as in academic domains women in math. In light of the way that group is generally regarded in these domains, they can feel that their frustration is a signal that they don't belong there and that they will not be given the benefit of the doubt there. Their frustrations will be taken as a sign of failure and they won't feel a sense of belonging there.

So when you have students who are experiencing this kind of pressure, almost culture pressure, then some of these techniques are more important. This idea of challenge coupled with affirmation of ability to reach it is not tough love, it's challenge but really supportive love that you can really meet these standards. That signals to them that they're not being seen stereotypically as their group might be seen. But there is a lot being expected of them and a general belief in this environment that they can meet those expectations. Once you mobilize that kind of motivation in students, you have to (and this is part of the labor too) to sustain the student's confidence that you do feel that way, that you pay attention to their work and be involved, and then you can have real miraculous results with students.

Dr. Karen Morell: If students are in an environment where they are picking up cues that they are not wanted, is there anything that you would say the program could specifically do with that student that comes in and says, "I don't see anybody like me in the major I want to go into," or in grad school?

Dr. Claude Steele: That is unfortunately an all too common problem for these students. It's almost a result of the demographics of our population as well as otherwise. But they will often see cues like that. Their group will be in a minority status. Their cultural preferences and tendencies won't be seen as mainstream in these environments. So the hope that our analysis leads to is that, in situations like that, there may be things that so affirm a student's sense of belonging there, that they disregard the implications that these kind of cues might otherwise have. You want to ensure the students' belonging, in a way, so that these cues are now interpreted in terms of a sense of belonging. Well, I belong here, so if I belong here, then the particular cue that might otherwise be threatening to me, like I'm the only one of my group here, might not be read as strongly as otherwise. It might not be taken as the same cue that I should leave here. I should give up.

So I think if there is an underlying general principle, it's that for groups like these, whose abilities are negatively stereotyped, belonging can't be taken for granted. I don't believe learning can happen without a sense of belonging. If you don't feel like you belong in a situation, then that becomes a kind of primary preoccupation of the student. “Do I belong? Can I fit here? What did that comment mean? What does this person mean by relating to me this way?” So this question is sort of on the boil all the time. The task at hand, the work to be learned, is just another task in the situation. So when a person doesn't belong or has an insecure sense of belonging, they're multitasking. They're figuring out how much they belong and what all the cues mean about that, in addition to actually doing the work at hand. It's harder to make good progress when you're multitasking as opposed to being able to give yourself wholeheartedly to a problem or to the work.

Dr. Karen Morell: You've spoken about how students who are picking up these cues end up becoming much more vigilant. It leads to tremendous stress and puts an extra burden on the students because of the fact that they have picked up these cues. What kind of research were you doing at the time that let you realize that students were becoming much more stressed out?

Dr. Claude Steele: Well, I think over the years we've sort of stumbled backwards into the idea that being the member of a negatively stereotyped group added a pressure to your performance in settings where that stereotype was relevant to the whole phenomenon of stereotype threat. Then, having sort of gotten clear about that, the question became, well, what makes this worse or not worse? The answer to that question was surprising. It seemed to be more in the environment, cues in the environment then it was anything about the particular psychological makeup of the students, whether they had high expectations or low expectations or high self esteem or low self esteem.

Most people think that, but we were finding these effects, these stereotype threat effects, in students who had the strongest skills and the strongest expectations. So it wasn't plausible that could be making them susceptible to these things alone because they had strengths. Rather, it seemed to be that cues were signaling to them -- this is our interpretation -- that maybe they don't belong in this setting that's very important to their life and very important to their progress in society and so on. Here these cues may be signaling that they, as a category of people don't belong there, that that was interfering with their performance by preoccupying them with this question of belonging. This question starts to become the preoccupation. Their friends who share that identity and that situation, they get together and everybody's concerned about it and it becomes the whole lens through which they see that world for a while, that that barrier had to be broken through. They had to have a sense of genuine belonging in a setting in order to be like anybody else in the setting.

So it was kind of just the progress of the research over time that led to a focus on cues. Then, like a good psychologist, you put the hypothesis like that to test and you design experiments that test it and measure the physiological consequences of not belonging in a set situation that you're identified with, where you want to belong. So by that time, it seemed straightforward to us that that was the critical dynamic in it. But it was a long time getting there.

Dr. Karen Morell: What would you recommend people read if they wanted to find out more about the experiments and the conclusions you've come to?

Dr. Claude Steele: Well, I'm gong to have a book finished here pretty soon if I can get to it with all this administrative life I've taken on. There is a book out there called Young, Gifted and Black and it has a chapter in it. There are three authors in it and I'm one of them. That chapter is a pretty good summary of what we do. I think that's useful.

Dr. Karen Morell: You have spoken several times about the critical importance to you personally of mentors. TRIO programs often are able to really excel at providing mentors for people. Could you tell TRIO staff about one of the mentors that was important to you and what conclusions you draw from that?

Dr. Claude Steele: That's a good issue. I think it was very important to me. Many people say that, of course, and I think it's true that it takes somebody else to tell you belong in a situation. They can't fake it; they can't just say you belong. They have to treat you like you belong and you have to see that they mean it. I was very fortunate to have an advisor in psychology who treated me that way. I always joked that he was coming up for tenure at the time. I was his only graduate student and he had to believe in me. And he did, he demanded a lot and he supported me. We had a lot of interaction. The older I get and the more time I spend in academia, I'd say it was a fairly uncommon, not an altogether common relationship that graduate students have with their advisors. But as I say, he had his needs, and he needed me, and I needed him.

I could tell that he really took me seriously and expected me to be able to work with him like that, to do every part of the research process, the way a good graduate student should. He wasn't particularly my friend. He wasn't particularly -- I'm sure he knew nothing about race and civil rights or anything of that sort. We were just in a situation where it was person to person and that's the real strength of mentorship, I think. That's one of the real advantages, the leverage that it has, that these things are easier to do person to person then they are if you're handling a group, and certainly group to group.

But person to person, you know, he'd call me on Sunday and say, "Where’s the data. I need the analysis," you know, and I'd have to produce it. He worked at night. We'd go in, we'd talk and we'd really think hard about these things. So anyway, that kind of relationship made the other cues in the setting, made me interpret them differently. They were no longer cues -- they didn't make me happy, being the only African-American graduate student in all of the psychology department at that time. It didn't make me happy, but it no longer meant I didn't belong there or couldn't belong, because I did belong there. It transformed the interpretation of the other cues in the situation. But without that relationship, without that mentoring relationship, they would have meant that maybe you don't belong here that maybe you should go into some other walk of life or something like that. But with him believing in me like that, it meant, “Well, that may be the case. I may have some troubles but I can belong here. There are enough people here and there's enough to this that I can belong in this situation.”

So that's one power mentors can have. You don't have to be in the same group as the mentee; people worry about that. I think you do need to have I'd say minority mentors because the student needs the existence proof that somebody can make it in this situation. So visible role models, I suppose, I think are important. But with regard to the actual mentor's relationship, I think anybody can do that well because the mentor is in the world that the student wants to belong in and they have huge leverage right there. They can convey to that student, "I think you belong." When a mentor can effectively do that with a student in a real way, not in a rhetorical way, but in a real engaged way, it's transformative. I think it's transformative for everybody when somebody tells you, "I think you can do this. This is difficult and I think you can do it." That changes lives.

Dr. Karen Morell: What would you tell a student who was struggling personally to overcome cues that they had? They really aspire. They want to get something done, but they keep getting this feedback that they don't belong. What can an individual do?

Dr. Claude Steele: That's a good question. I think it's a difficult situation to be in and, as we all know, it's an all too common situation to be in. But one thing an individual can do -- I'm very impressed with the work of Carol Dweck. In fact, she's a colleague of mine in the psychology department here. She has a book called Mindsets, a very practical book expressing her theory. But the core idea for this kind of situation is that you come to regard the abilities you need to succeed in the situation as expandable and incremental. You avoid regarding those abilities as fixed and limiting.

A lot of what is alleged in the negative stereotype about a group's abilities is that the group lacks a certain essential capacity to do the work, women in math, for example. They inherently lack capacity. So then when you have frustration and you're under a stereotype like that, it says, “I’m in this domain where I'm negatively stereotyped; I'm frustrated. This ability -- this is often implicitly said or assumed -- this ability is fixed, and God given, and I don't seem to have it, so I should go into another aspect of life.”

Well, you can really kind of defame these stereotypes and the whole experience of stereotype threat by regarding abilities as incremental. Most people who do well in a domain where their group is negatively stereotyped, do think that way. They privately have the theory that even math is something that is learned. Most of Asia regards it that way and they have no dearth of achievement in that area. They regard it as a matter of hard work and organization and focus and all the things that go into time on task. The earlier in life, the better, and so on.

I think a lot of times, we tend to use the term "ability" when some skill is at a very high level and we can't see all the prior life emersion that has gone into the building of that skill. Then we say, "That person is just a genius.” I don't know how they could have gotten that good at it. But you didn't see that Tiger Woods, for example, has been playing since he was 18 months old. So when he's 13, he's better than everybody else. It looks like a God given talent but, actually, it's a life of time on that task.

So it is with most of the abilities that we value in society. That is a safe statement. That's not even a radical statement. So it's very important to regard things that way, that you can learn to do anything. That's an important thing an individual can do to reduce the impact of stereotyping.

I think also just understanding the nature of the phenomenon, that there is a certain pressure in being a member of a group whose abilities are negatively stereotyped. Some people think, "By God, I'm just an individual and I want the world to take me as an individual." They are so committed to thinking about things that way, and perhaps for good reasons, that they just don't understand or want to accept that there may be an extra pressure on them in that situation. So they interpret that anxiety and discomfort in all kinds of other ways. Well, sometimes just knowing about the phenomenon, that with the identity goes some pressure, can normalize it and make you feel more comfortable in a situation, "Oh, I'm kind of feeling that at this turn in the road."

Dr. Karen Morell: Is there anything in particular you would suggest a student in that position might read?

Dr. Claude Steele: There are a bunch of things coming out now which are very interesting because they are people applying these interventions to things. For example, one guy -- this is going to be published soon -- he exposes black and white Yale students to a five minute videotape. On that videotape, they see an older black student say, "Geez, I hated Yale when I first came here. I felt terribly uncomfortable. I went home a lot on the weekends. I didn't feel like I belonged in this setting. Then I came back and I joined a singing group and that made me feel more comfortable in the environment. Pretty soon, I kind of hung out with some kids that were interested in my major." So he finds a place at Yale. "And now I feel wonderful at Yale. It's a great school with all kinds of resources. What a magnificent environment, and so on and so forth." They just see that.

A year later, or the next semester, for the black students, their grades go up by two-thirds of a letter grade. So what is that doing? Well, that's giving them some light at the end of the tunnel. It's acknowledging that their feelings are feelings that are not crazy and just private personal feelings of personal inadequacy, but that other people like them probably felt the same kind of thing. So it normalizes, makes more normal the emotions that they're having in the environment, the alienation they felt there.

Then it's giving this sense that there is a way to belong here. When that frames their everyday experience, then the cues, again, don't have the same negative effects.

If kids also have diverse relationships -- this is where diversity has a powerful effect -- then they talk to kids who are different than them about personal things, all kinds of things. Then they realize that those other kids have experiences very similar to their experiences. That means experiences they're having are not just due to their race or to their gender or something and that perception waters down the degree to which they use race to interpret everything or gender to interpret everything. Actually, a lot of people have similar kinds of experiences here and that's another thing that kind of relaxes this vigilance in the new environment.

Dr. Ben McCune: We have discussed whether it would be advantageous to teach students this whole social identity and the cues and make them aware of them. Or is that detrimental? Is it better to teach the teachers about it and get the program to fix it?

Dr. Claude Steele: I used to worry about that, too. But Josh Aronson has a study published in which he did teach -- I think this is seventh or eighth graders -- the skills of sixth graders maybe. He just taught them about stereotype threat and he got a very beneficial effect from that. So I don't know if somebody else could do it under a different circumstance. It might backfire, that is, if you tell somebody just before they take an important time test about stereotype threat, then they go into the test and they're going to inevitably have frustration, and now they're going to have to sort is it the fear? Is it stereotype threat? So the multitasking could get so difficult that it might not help there. But if they've had time to kind of learn this interpretation and understand its applications in their life, then it probably helps them. To address student attrition, colleges have created programs to help students adjust to the demands of college and persist to completion. Programs vary widely—ranging from entering-student orientation to comprehensive academic and personal counseling, tutoring, and study skills courses.