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Psychologist examines stereotypes

During a Wednesday night speech, Claude Steele, a long-time researcher of stereotypes and intellectual identities, discussed "stereotype threat" and its role in minority performance.

"We look at what's left [in society] that may still be a barrier tied to race or tied to gender that may undermine a person's ability to succeed," said Steele, who is professor and chair of the psychology department at Stanford University, while speaking about the connections between public images and performance levels.

He said anyone can be affected by stereotype threats, which he defined as "situations where you realize a negative stereotype about a group you're a part of and this could affect you."

Citing the example of a young black man whistling Vivaldi so he is not frowned upon when he enters a high-class store, he explained that people do not even have to recognize the threats posed by stereotypes to be affected by them.

Steele spent much time discussing his research methods over the past 10 years.

He explained one method involving "turning up stereotypical pressure," where black and white male subjects are told that they are taking a diagnostic test.

As soon as this test becomes an element in the study, black people seem to feel pressure not to live up to the negative stereotypes that surround them.

Being so concerned with this standard, they tend to spend too much time checking and second-guessing their answers, and, in turn, score lower than white students.

In order to measure peoples' awareness of stereotyping, researchers tell black subjects to list their favorite hobbies and cultural activities.

Steele explained that in order to avoid the "risk of being seen through the lens of a stereotype," black people often list things they feel would not usually be associated with their race.

Another test involved asking elite athletes, both black and white, to perform a physical task.

Steele demonstrated that the effects of stereotypes were revealed when blacks excelled only after being told it was a test of "natural athletic ability" and whites succeeded after being told it was a test of "strategic sports intelligence."

Steele said the repercussions of stereotype threats include a heightened awareness of race and gender and that these effects can hinder performance levels in any societal task, including education. "The environment is loaded with cues to any rational person that they might be judged by images," Steele said.

Steele suggested that people not only accept each other's differences, but also realize the major role these differences play in society today. He said his research "shows the degree to which the societal situations we are in play a role in our lives. What we're trying to do here is describe how the stereotype in a society can come down to shape the lives of individuals and groups in that society."

The Page Auditorium speech, which drew a crowd of 75, was sponsored by the Samuel DuBois Cook Society.

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