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CASBS Remains Fertile Ground for Steele

Claude Steele, no stranger to CASBS, retrurned to the hill to test ideas motivating an exciting new book project.

The Center is widely recognized as a premier convergence point for social and behavioral scientists to develop, test, refine, and talk about their ideas. Legions of CASBS fellows and other scholars who have participated in the Center’s various summer institutes, projects, workshops, and other activities know this.

Claude Steele knows this too. Very well. Time and again, the Center has proven itself as fertile ground for him to advance and discuss his research agenda. This occurred most recently on December 6, 2022, during a private CASBS event during which he presented and took questions on concepts and arguments he is formulating in a new book project.

Claude Steele needs little introduction to most practitioners and followers of the social and behavioral sciences. A renowned social psychologist, he currently is the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Emeritus, at Stanford University. As a higher education leader, he previously served as the executive vice chancellor and provost of University of California, Berkeley; the James Quillen Dean of the School of Education at Stanford; and provost of Columbia University. He has held top disciplinary posts such as president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, president of the Western Psychological Association, and board member of the American Psychological Society. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Science Board, and the American Philosophical Society. His scholarly contributions have earned a long list of awards and accolades.

He is most known for pioneering work on stereotype threat – the circumstance where people feel anxiety about confirming negative stereotypes about their social group and encountering judgement or discrimination as a result – and how it leads to diminished confidence and interest, thus contributing to racial and gender gaps in student academic achievement.

And CASBS was the place where the stereotype threat line of research advanced significantly when Steele was in residence as a 1994-95 fellow. The research that gave birth and empirical support to the concept began as part of Steele’s collaborations with Richard Nisbett and Steven Spencer at the University of Michigan and with Joshua Aronson at Stanford. But, notably, the original study resulting in the first stereotype threat publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology was written, “in largest part,” by Steele’s account, at CASBS.

My fellowship year…was spent writing, redesigning, and doing the final experiment in Steele & Aronson and revising that paper. That year enabled Aronson and I to fully develop the theory and narrative… That year at the Center allowed this work to come together in a way that, I believe, gave it a powerful launch. Without that year, the impact of the work would have taken either much longer to be realized – or would never have been realized to the same degree.[1]

The Center played a role a second time, during the 2005-09 period, when Steele served as its director. Here, at CASBS, he wrote Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), the widely celebrated personal account that reflected on and synthesized years of groundbreaking work on stereotypes and identity, characterizing the scientific discussions and evidence supporting stereotype threat for a broad audience. A copy of the book resides in the Center’s Ralph W. Tyler Collection.

In the book’s acknowledgments section, Steele sheepishly thanks “colleagues at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, who were blessedly tolerant of me neglecting my director’s duties long enough to bring this book to a conclusion. Patience is the milk of human kindness, and they are indeed a kind group of friends and colleagues” (page xii).

Whistling Vivaldi is Steele’s only book to date, but soon that will change. A new book – also a trade book for a popular audience – is in the works. His December 6 appearance on the CASBS hill was an opportunity to talk about some of the principal ideas motivating it, field questions about it, and gather feedback from attendees at an early stage in the book’s development. The attendees included three discussants – Sylvia Perry, Toni Schmader, and Greg Walton. All current CASBS fellows, the three are well versed in Steele’s work and launched careers as psychologists in part due to his towering influence in the field. Their work descends directly from the stereotype threat line of research that Steele and his collaborators worked on at CASBS. Now stellar scholars in their own right, on December 6 they were just as much of a draw for Steele as he was for them.

Steele comes at his project, as he explained, from experience both as a social psychologist studying stereotypes and as a leader of various higher education institutions. The question he asks is as thorny as it is simple: How do we achieve successful diverse communities – in classrooms, universities, corporations, other organizational contexts – that are truly integrated such that group identity is not a barrier to membership and each member recognizes the full humanity of the others? It’s a commitment the U.S. made relatively recently – starting in the 1960s as a matter of ‘public morality’ and codification in law – but has not yet fulfilled. Given the long shadow of the country’s struggles with race and the persistence of many negative stereotypes, the experience of diverse settings can be fraught with “toxic ambiguity” – mental and physical stress about how one’s identity is being perceived and responded to. Steele calls this feeling “churn.” It occupies valuable mental bandwidth and amounts to a diversity tax of sorts.

In other words, according to Steele, diversity itself can raise a stereotype threat. One example might involve, say, a meeting between a white school teacher and Black parents of one of that teacher’s students. Both parties feel the anxiety inherent to the interaction — the Black parents facing possible negative stereotypes about their group in this setting and the white teacher similarly facing the possibility of being seen through the lens of negative stereotypes about whites in this setting. How do they negotiate the uncertainties of the identity divide in this inherently diverse setting?  Another situation involves, say, university students of different races tasked with writing essays and later receiving feedback. As Steele described, experiments show that Black students, even at highly selective universities like Stanford, on average give less credence to most types of (even positive) feedback; they feel less certain as to whether the feedback is based purely on the merits of the work or partly attributed to the (White) feedback giver’s opinion of their identity group’s abilities. They question whether they are being valued and/or treated fairly in this setting.

And this uncertainty continues beyond that single interaction. It could be waiting in the next diverse setting, the one after that, and so on. The predicament is long-lasting, compounding the weight of the burden.

These situations and many others usually have little to do with individual prejudices and biases, even though we tend to think our diversity problems are reducible to them. Rather, they conjure what Steele called “the American drama” – the stereotypes and the baggage surrounding them that our history has produced and that are a part of our ongoing life. History has cast us in our roles, he remarked.

“In a diverse conversation, everything is different,” Steele continued. “History arrives and starts stirring the pot. In situations like this, there’s a tension between remembering and forgetting. It’s hard to just trust. Our history makes this kind of intergroup trust difficult.”

In such instances, remedies and approaches that place overriding emphasis on a posture or policy of color blindness or identity blindness (or assimilation to an asserted mainstream) consciously diminish people’s identity-based experiences. They devalue difference.

“And that covers over a huge reality,” said Steele. “The reality is that we’ve used identity to organize and structure our society from the beginning. Reflecting our history of identity segregations, our institutions and organization did not evolve with the intent of serving the full diversity of the U.S. population.  If we’re colorblind, we’re going to miss the significance of that. Our institutions won’t adapt to that reality. They will continue to justify and rationalize the inequalities that have been a part of our history, and we will proceed pretty much as we always have.”

Considered in this light, reducing ambiguity-fueled anxieties may be every bit as important as reducing prejudice itself. How do we accomplish this, thus enabling us to better see the full humanity and full potential of human difference? What reduces churn?

For Claude Steele, it’s trust – work that builds trust across identity divides. Trust can be transformative – reducing stress, improving performance, fostering relationships, and enhancing the functioning of institutions. In so doing, to the extent that people become increasingly more comfortable with each other in diverse settings, trust also can pull double duty by reducing prejudice and promoting social justice.

“There’s some chicken soup capacity to building trust,” he said. It might be a good thing to marinate in.”

And he’s not alone in his thinking. It overlaps considerably with Toni Schmader’s work, including her CASBS year project, in which she seeks to build a model for understanding the fundamental role of trust in the social functioning of individuals, groups, and society as a whole.

In the early preview of the book project he outlined on December 6, Steele noted that trust is “a game played on the ground. It’s who shows up. It’s who listens. It’s who really gives people the concrete help they actually need.” It at least can provide the beginning points for building the kind of diverse communities most aspire to, at least in rhetoric.

This may sound most applicable to relations between and among individuals, and Steele sketched real-world examples for the audience that may blossom into fuller examinations in the eventual book. And he’s in a collection phase for more cases of what he referred to as “wiseness,” a term used decades ago by eminent sociologist Erving Goffman as a contrast to color or identity blindness, to describe a recognition of value, respect, dignity, and value across identity divides that inspires action accordingly. Someone “wise” employs a “learning mindset” – sees the different realities that society imposes on different identities, the shared humanity in those differences, and embraces the opportunities that difference affords.

Is trust, granted through wiseness or otherwise, generalizable or scalable beyond the individual level to group and institutional settings?

In at least one societal sector – education – yes. In the example involving the Black student essay writers, one experiment variation featured the giving of “wise” critical feedback that, with no ambiguity, signaled they had the ability to meet a high standard, thus affirming their potential and eliminating the possibility that they were being stereotyped.

Discussant Greg Walton described related studies at the middle school level showing that the wise feedback intervention sets in motion a process of positive relationship patterns that provide enduring benefits for students of color, even into the next school year and beyond. Walton found the consistency of these findings across several studies “absolutely astonishing.”

Such examples are illuminating in that they suggest adoption of a developmental model of pedagogy, already in deployment at a few innovative universities or specific units within them, rather than the standard selection model. In the selection model, students must meet and adapt to the institution and its expectations on its terms; the setting is a given. In the development model, the institution meets the students where they are through the implementation of messaging and practices (concrete paths and clear markers, sustained support, procedural justice) that equip students with the “cultural capital” needed to understand and function well in that setting. In short, the institution develops skilled students instead of simply selecting skilled students. By doing so, the institution offers trust, establishes and cultivates a relationship based on it, and reduces a variety of potential ambiguities. Moreover, the performance and feeling of belonging among identity-threatened students improves dramatically.

Sticking with the theme of scaling and generalizing trust but beyond the education sector, Steele also highlighted the role of socialization within groups, identifying African American communities’ support organizations and traditions – the churches, barber shops, salons, etc. – as tremendous assets. Black communities use them to constantly work through the journey of being an African American in the United States.

“We’re experts at that; it’s one of the things we know a lot about,” said Steele, who also will will reflect on his family’s personal experience with “beloved communities” in the 1950s south of Chicago. “There’s a lot to offer there. There are wisdoms in those traditions that will help other groups deal with the churn we experience in transitioning to a genuinely diverse society. They capture a social and moral beauty. I want to uncap it [in the book].”

Discussant Sylvia Perry invoked the other side of the coin – the necessary role of socialization among dominant groups. One of her CASBS year projects focuses on the role of racial parental socialization in the development of White children’s attitudes toward Black individuals. Steele underscored the importance of this.

“I want to bring everybody into view in this,” he said. It’s not a Black problem, or a women’s problem, or a white male problem. Everybody feels the churn over how their identity is going to play out in diverse situations.”

Picking up on Perry’s comments and work, Schmader emphasized how group behavior really starts at the individual level in the family, largely by embracing the learning mindset.

“And that seems to require being vulnerable and admitting that you’re intellectually humble in that space,” she said.

Steele agreed entirely but noted that when one starts mapping this conversation onto institutional contexts, so much else enters the equation. If he were to walk today into, say, a Black barber shop talking about trusting first through humility and vulnerability, he likely would not encounter a very receptive audience.

And this may be the big lift laying in front of him in the upcoming book. Given all the variables likely at play, Steele is in the process of developing and formulating his ideas on staging the elements and dynamics of trust-building at institutional levels. Unlocking this may be integral to unlocking the transition into a more diverse society, probably the great challenge of the American experiment. And advancing our collective knowledge and thinking on this no doubt will compel him to extend well beyond the borders of social psychology and education administration to the insights on offer from across the social and behavioral sciences.

Claude Steele knows very well the fertile grounds on which he will always be welcome for undertaking this.

Written by Mike Gaetani

[1] Claude Steele email communication to then-CASBS director Margaret Levi, 14 November 2016 [CASBS files].

In an unpublished December 2017 audio interview with former CASBS program director Sarah Wert, Steele elaborates on the Center’s role in facilitating key interactions with members of his CASBS fellows cohort that helped shape the stereotype threat work. Though Steele acknowledges and credits many members of the 1994-95 cohort in various ways, his discussions with James Comer (who happened to occupy the study next to Steele that year) centered on education and inequality and “really established a channel for the work to go down,” while conversations with both Comer and cohort fellow Howard Gardner helped Steele “see the larger context in a moment that mattered: test performance.” Though the empirical foundation was solid, according to Steele, before his CASBS fellowship he lacked a theory and a real-world application on which to focus the work. [CASBS files]

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