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Claude Steele's Stereotype Threat Experiment

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at the original experiment, designed by Dr. Claude Steele, to determine whether people would confirm negative stereotypes about their group. The discussion includes how the experiment was designed, how the participants were grouped and what the results of the experiment were.

The Truth About Stereotypes

Claude Steele, a psychologist asked to discover the underlying causes of perceived black student academic deficits, asked himself a question. Are the stereotypes true? Is it true that black students perform worse than white and Asian students in college? Of course the overwhelming answer to that was yes, but then he asked a different and much more important question. Why?

Is it actually true that black students are not as capable academically as white or Asian students, or is there some other cause? He was asking a basic question about unfair stereotypes, which are sets of beliefs about groups of people or things that are much more simplistic than the complex reality that underlies them. I'm sure you've heard many (and possibly have even had them directed you): Why can't white people dance? Why are Asian students always so good at math? Why are black people always committing crimes? Why do Middle Eastern or Indian people only work at convenience stores? All of these are pretty offensive stereotypes that negatively pigeon-hole an ethnic or racial group (even though some of them, as you can see, are relatively neutral or even positive-sounding). Though they may be true in some individual cases, they are not generally true about a group. And that is the problem with stereotypes. They are broad statements about a group of people that do not actually represent the whole.

So Dr. Steele decided to search for that underlying truth. His hypothesis (the starting point of an experiment where a statement of potential truth is offered) was that black students were just as capable as white and Asian students, but he had to find a way to uncover that truth. To prove his assumption, he designed an experiment.

Experiment Design

Claude Steele chose Stanford University as the site for the experiment. As one of the top academic universities in the world, Stanford was a perfect setting to examine the relative truth of poorer academic performance. In order to make sure that the results were accurate, the participants had to be random volunteers and he needed to separate them into groups.

The three groups, consisting of black and white students, were asked what their pre-college SAT score was and then they were given a test containing verbal acuity questions from the Graduate Records Exam (GRE). A white monitor handed out the test and told the groups what the test was supposed to measure. One group was told that the test was diagnostic of their intellectual ability, another group was told that the test was just a simple problem solving task that had nothing to do with their intellectual ability, and the third group was told that though the test had nothing to do with intellectual ability it was difficult.

Understanding the Three Groups

Dr. Steele reasoned that the three groups would yield different results. He believed that the students in the first group would score worse than the white students because they believed the stereotype regarding their intellectual incapability when compared to white students. The second group would score better than the first (likely equal to their white counterparts) because they did not believe that they were being tested for intellectual ability. The third group was a control group (which is an experimental sample given no interference by the experimenter and serves as a baseline comparison to the tested variables) that was given instructions similar to both of the other groups and was expected to perform similarly to the second group.

The Results

As expected, the two primary groups performed differently. The group of black students who thought their intellectual ability was being tested performed worse than those who did not have that thought. Claude Steele had designed an experiment that confirmed his supposition.

His original belief was that stereotypes become ingrained in the psyche of those stereotyped. Once a group believes a stereotype, they will subconsciously act to prove it true. In the case of the black students in this experiment, they had heard, and were threatened by, the stereotype that they were intellectually inferior to white students. So when they took a test that was 'known' to them that tested intellectual ability, they performed worse than they were capable of because of the threat.

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